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Los Angeles: More Trials Ahead


An editorial on Los Angeles in yesterday's editions of The Sun got the name of the incoming police chief wrong. He is Willie L. Williams, formerly head of the Philadelphia Police Department.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Battered Los Angeles faces new trials ahead that may not be confined to the courtroom:

* All four white policemen who were caught on videotape beating black motorist Rodney G. King but were found not guilty of assault are under federal investigation on civil rights charges that could lead to criminal indictments. One of their number, Officer Laurence M. Powell, has been ordered to face a second state trial on charges of abuse of authority with intent to do bodily harm.

* All three black Americans who were caught on videotape beating white truck driver Reginald O. Denny during the riots that swept South Central L.A. April 29 have been arrested and charged with assault. A fourth suspect has been charged with robbery for taking Mr. Denny's wallet.

How Los Angeles -- indeed how the country -- reacts to these cases and the verdicts they bring is a matter of concern and trepidation. The system of justice cannot be held hostage to the results of famous trials, however super-charged community opinion may be. But it would be fatuous to suggest that the threat of renewed violence will not permeate these prosecutions every step of the way. Acquittal for Mr. Powell and/or conviction of the four African Americans accused of beating Mr. Denny could set off more explosions.

Yet there are countervailing influences that may prevent another tragedy. Most telling, in our view, has been the reaction of the two victims of assault. Mr. King said even as Los Angeles burned: "Can we all get along?" Mr. Denny, recovering in his hospital bed, commented: "I don't believe in any slur against any person or any type of persons."

Before despair takes over, these compassionate and forgiving remarks should become a mantra for all Americans. They are far more worthy than smoldering resentment and vows of vengeance.

Action as well as sentiment is required. Los Angeles is getting a respected black police chief, Willie L. Wilson, to replace the controversial Daryl F. Gates. Former FBI director William H. Webster is launching a huge probe of the Los Angeles Police Department, with emphasis on its unpreparedness and slow response to the riots. Entrepreneur Peter Ueberroth has been put in charge of an ambitious "Rebuild L.A." campaign.

The federal government is also pitching in, with almost $2 billion in emergency aid. Between the White House and Congress there is intense political pressure for stepped-up urban assistance programs nationwide.

For the time being, Los Angeles is calm. But whether the city (and the nation) will remain calm when these new cases come to trial and verdicts are reached will depend on public perceptions and mood. If the words of Mr. King and Mr. Denny are shouted from the rooftops, repeated on TV as often as were the incendiary videotapes, emblazoned on T-shirts and driven into the American consciousness, maybe -- just maybe -- this crisis can be contained and the country made better.

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