The brutal beating of Rodney King last spring was sufficient to unseat the entrenched Los Angeles police chief, Daryl Gates. But it was not sufficient to convict the four police officers who beat Mr. King. Something is wrong. It is not enough to say the verdict was wrong, as almost anyone who saw the videotape of the beating would conclude. But was the jury wrong, or does blame lie with the legal machinations and judicial decisions which gave birth to the jury?
Lesson after lesson in the past 25 years teaches that the perception that justice has been thwarted by racism is the single most volatile element in civil riots. Police brutality also fuels unrest in minority communities. The fact that the videotaped beating of Mr. King by four white police officers did not touch off rioting when it was broadcast again and again last year $l underscores the cry of anguish that exploded Wednesday night in South Los Angeles. White and black Angelenos alike initially expected a fair trial for the policemen, judged by a cross-section selected from their communities. Instead, the trial was moved from the central city area where the incident occurred -- and the trial should have taken place -- to a distant suburb populated by a narrow segment of the population. A downtown jury could have freed the policemen without a perception that justice had been cheated. A jury without a single African American could not.
Most police departments and judicial systems have come a long way since the epidemic of urban unrest of the '60s and '70s. But clearly not all the lessons have been learned in Los Angeles and perhaps elsewhere. Justice must not only be served; it must be perceived to be served. And not just by the majority of a community -- by all of it, particularly the minorities who are most alienated from the social fabric of our communities. That means not only community relations programs, sensitivity training and more nonwhite police commanders. It also means everyday police work that is firm, fair and professional -- that does nothing to foment civil disorder but also knows how to deal with it if it occurs. It means a judiciary that is not so remote it exacerbates social tensions.
The courts of California have spoken in the King case. They have ill-served the cause of justice. Now it is up to the protector of civil rights of last resort, the federal government, to see that justice is both served and seen to be served.