With the robbery suspect now handcuffed in the back of a Baltimore police car, the half dozen cops at the scene turned their attention elsewhere: possible witnesses, the victim they had yet to find, the crowd gathered at the corner of Gwynn Oak and Liberty Heights avenues. As a rookie cop politely asked the bystanders to leave, a 21-year-old man stepped from the crowd.
"What do you think about Rodney King?" Michael Strange hollered to the police officer, a young black man not much older than himself. "What do you think about Rodney King?"
"It's all messed up," the officer replied as he continued to ask the men and women standing in front of Big T's Place to move along. "It's all messed up."
From the street corners of Northwest Baltimore to the state police barracks in Westminster, police in Maryland confronted the verdict in the Rodney King case. From beat cops to police officials, members of the law enforcement community spoke out publicly and speculated privately about their futures, their relationship with the public and the system on which they rely to ensure that justice prevails.
For many police interviewed yesterday -- black and white,
patrolmen and commanders, male and female -- the verdict seemed an aberration, especially because the beating had been videotaped, a key piece of evidence in the trial that was seen the globe over.
"You cannot be a rational person of any color, creed or kind and not believe that a crime was committed," said Sgt. James Cappucinco, a white detective in the Northwest Police District.
"It was ludicrous," said Anne Arundel County Officer Kathy Fahrman, a white six-year veteran and a patrol officer who works in a predominately white area. "Once he's on the ground, it's over. You don't stand there and keep wailing on him."
Woods decries verdict
In Baltimore, the largest urban police force in the state, Police Commissioner Edward V. Woods instructed commanders in the nine police districts to call community leaders to "keep a line of communications open both ways," according to spokesman Sam Ringgold. While decrying the verdict as "outrageous," Commissioner Woods said he didn't believe Baltimore would go the way of Los Angeles, where violence continued for the second day yesterday, Mr. Ringgold said.
In the districts, police officials talked about the verdict at roll call, the time before each shift when uniformed patrolmen are briefed on noteworthy crimes, suspects not yet caught and possible problems in a community. Officials advised their officers to "pay close attention to what is happening on the street," Mr. Ringgold said.
Throughout the day, it was "business as usual" with no problems reported, the spokesman said. "Everybody is talking about it, but they [police officials] have not sensed any real tension in the communities. They believe cooler heads will prevail."
While there were no reports of trouble from other metropolitan police departments, some Baltimore area police were apprehensive about how the public would respond.
"Black eye to policing"
Maryland State Trooper Matthew Jones expressed the view of several officers interviewed yesterday when he said the verdict in Los Angeles gave "a black eye to policing."
When the beating occurred in March 1991, Trooper Jones said residents worried about police brutality. He thought then -- and hoped -- people would realize that it was an "extremely isolated incident."
The verdict may have changed that, said the white Trooper Jones, as he stood in front of a convenience store in Ellicott City.
"The verdict sent out the wrong message," said one Baltimore police officer. "Here we're starting up this community policing where we're trying to encourage the citizens to talk to us and now we're the enemy again."
Even in Havre de Grace, a sleepy riverfront town in Harford County, attitudes about the police have been affected by the events in Los Angeles.
"I stopped some kids today -- they were just doing things kids aren't supposed to be doing -- and they said, 'What are you
going to do, beat us like they did Rodney King?' " said Sgt. William Johnson, a member of the Havre de Grace police force. "It makes our job harder."
Sergeant Johnson said he had two feelings about the verdict, "one as a police officer and one as a black American.
"As a police officer, I feel like maybe they went a little bit to the extreme. By our policies in this department, they went way too far," Sergeant Johnson said.
"As a black American, I felt that the change of venue, to give the officers a fair trial, was highly misleading. It was a well-publicized case. The only person who wouldn't know about it had to be living off in a cave somewhere," the sergeant said. "I know they had 12 jurors who got the verdict they did, but I can't truly believe they were found not guilty of all the charges if what we were shown by the media is true. I'm hoping there was more evidence presented to them than what the media reported."
At Mondawmin Mall, an off-duty city police officer arrived for work yesterday morning at the sports store where he moonlights as a security officer. The officer, a nine-year veteran of the city force, is black, as were most of his co-workers.
"I barely break that door and I heard it. Around here people were upset. They asked me what I thought. They wanted to see what side I was on," said the officer, who did not want to give his name. "I told them it was sad. And I was angry. Me being a police officer, knowing I have a responsibility on the street. . . . I'm waiting for the first instance when a police officer has to use force."
The officer said he fears that people on the street will feel that police "got a license" to beat anyone and they will retaliate.
"Too many people are talking about beating down the police. I'm just glad I'm not on the street. I'm just thankful I'm not in uniform."