Taped in the act


Los Angeles--WHAT IF there had been no videotape of the three Los Angeles police officers clubbing, kicking and stomping Rodney Glen King while about 10 more stood and watched? There would have been just one more bruised and broken black or Hispanic "perpetrator" who somehow was injured after being routinely stopped in traffic. Police brutality? King's complaints would have been dismissed as wild allegations. A grand jury hearing in the case, which began Monday, probably would not have taken place.

It is a familiar story across America. Recall the case of Michael Stewart, who died 13 days after New York City transit policemen delivered him hogtied and bruised to Bellevue Hospital in 1983. Or the shooting death of an unarmed black motorcyclist by a police officer in Miami in 1989.

If there had been no King videotape, there would have been no national attention and perhaps little local attention. If any story had appeared, readers would have been offered dramatic police descriptions of violent attempts by the "perpetrator" to resist arrest after a high-speed chase. And perhaps a "shiny weapon" -- a knife, screwdriver, toy pistol -- would have turned up in a later search of the scene.

We could have expected a strong statement by Police Chief Daryl F. Gates defending his officers, no matter how improbable their story. He might have used colorful language in insulting the victim and members of his race, as he has before.

But this time the nation saw an independent, irrefutable instance of police officers assaulting a nonresisting citizen. The tape, filmed from a nearby balcony, shows King being struck by nightsticks at least 56 times and kicked seven times. His doctor says he has a fractured eye socket, a broken cheekbone, a broken leg, bruises, facial nerve damage, a severe concussion and burns from a stun gun. The doctor says his vision may be permanently impaired.

To the average person, the brutalization of 25-year-old Rodney King, who pleaded with his abusers to stop, sounds and looks like attempted murder.

Chief Gates has gone so far as to say he was "shocked" by the videotape of the mauling of King. But once again the question has arisen whether the police department is answerable to Los Angeles citizens.

The King incident followed by less than a week the disclosure that Jamaal Wilkes, the former UCLA and Los Angeles Lakers basketball star, now a prominent businessman, was handcuffed by two Los Angeles police officers after having been stopped on Wilshire Boulevard because, the department said, the light over his license plate was out.

While a police spokesman did not "want to say that Mr. Wilkes fit the profile of a robbery suspect," the spokesman did say that "officers traditionally use minor violations in areas of high crime to provide a legal basis for making further inquiries." On one of the city's busiest streets? At 8:30 p.m.? Handcuffing one of the city's most recognizable citizens?

Not surprisingly, reaction to the King incident has been swift and widespread. Mayor Tom Bradley termed the contents of the videotape "shocking and outrageous." The FBI and district attorney promised speedy and thorough investigations. And Gates, under intense community pressure, announced that the police department supported filing criminal charges against the officers seen assaulting King. The three officers have been suspended.

Can anyone who has seen the videotape or read about the Wilkes incident fail to wonder what happens to residents of Los Angeles and other cities who are not famous athletes and not "lucky" enough to have their encounters with rampaging police officers recorded?

Geoffrey Taylor Gibbs is a board member of a black bar association in Los Angeles.

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