Old Warnings about a 'Siege Mentality'


Washington. The brave report by the Warren Christopher Commission about the Los Angeles cops' brutal beating of black motorist Rodney King may help to alleviate a terrible national problem. But I doubt it.

As I first heard news of the commission's call for L.A. police chief Daryl Gates to step down because his force has "a siege mentality," I happened to be reading a 1939 memo written by a 31-year-old lawyer in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Thurgood Marshall was warning his NAACP colleagues and blacks across the land 52 years ago that they had to take bold steps to prevent, or at least punish, those guilty of police brutality.

A few years later Mr. Marshall was screaming from another memo about a black veteran of the Pacific campaign of World War II, Isaac Woodard, getting his eyes clubbed out by white cops in South Carolina after a white bus driver declared that Mr. Woodard had spent too much time in the bathroom. This atrocity provoked President Harry Truman to force the passage of far-reaching civil rights legislation.

But, sad to say, the curse of police brutality seems as virulent now as it was half a century ago. The Los Angeles beating of motorist Rodney King is just a videotaped example of brutalities that are commonplace in every police precinct in this land. On Monday, Human Rights Watch issued a scathing report about the extent of police brutality in the United States, calling upon the federal government to stop it. FBI Director William Sessions told the NAACP national convention in Houston last Saturday that citizens must tape or otherwise reveal all incidents of brutality, and he said the FBI was giving top priority to identifying and prosecuting cops guilty of criminal abuses.

In 1939 Mr. Marshall wrote that one solution was to get some, or more, Negro policemen in black communities. But we are seeing that black cops, too, are caught up in "the siege mentality," the ,, authoritarian complex that lapses into brutal uses of force against citizens not yet convicted of anything. The "law and order" mentality that begins in the White House has led law-enforcement officials of every race and class to believe that they have a mandate to do anything they wish to "deter criminals."

The lawyer who wrote the warnings of 52 years ago is now retiring as a justice on a U.S. Supreme Court that is itself a prisoner of "the siege mentality." So deep is the commitment of conservative justices to "restore law and order" that they have voted to give extremely dangerous new powers to the police. This court has legitimized the use of tainted evidence, the admission of coerced confessions, outrageous searches and seizures on buses and other places and myriad invasions of privacy in the lawmen's sometimes-mindless quest to catch lawbreakers.

I state categorically that giving abusive powers to police, or to the state in general, does not promote law and order. It produces more official brutality, which causes millions of decent people to distrust policemen, which becomes a factor in myriad mistrials or declarations of "innocent" in cases where some terrible criminals have been indicted.

This city has seen its number of homicides grow from 228 in 1987, to 354 in 1988, to 438 in 1989 to 483 in 1990. You might think that in the face of such a lethal problem, citizens here would rush to help the police to jail criminals. But many jurors are as leery of the cops as they are of those on trial. Jurors believe that the cops will lie, doctor evidence, set people up in criminally compromising circumstances and play other illegal games just to get a high number of convictions.

I'm for taking every conceivable legal action to get the muggers and murderers, the robbers and racists, off America's streets. But I know that this cannot be achieved until we rein in the cops who, in many brutal ways, insist on being arresting officer, judge, jury and deliverer of punishment -- simultaneously.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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