Pace of Police Reforms Accelerates One Year After Videotaped Beating

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

IN scores of cities and small towns, police now ride with videocameras in their cars - electronic eyes that record busts and help keep both officers and crooks honest.

In Seattle and Virginia Beach, Va., new civilian review boards have been set up to oversee police affairs and turn a public searchlight on the precinct house.

In Washington, D.C., and Kansas City, Mo., just-formed special units try to identify and root out officers who repeatedly use excessive force. The world of policing is changing as concerns about brutality, community relations, mismanagement, and other issues challenge law enforcement agencies in the 1990s.

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For some, the changes are not enough: They still see too many cops on the beat too quick to use their batons. To others, however, evolutionary reforms in recruitment, training, leadership, and other facets of policing are making officers more sensitive to the diverse communities they serve and the myriad challenges they now confront on the street.

All of these changes have been accelerated in the year since the videotaped beating of a black motorist by white police officers in Los Angeles. "This was a watershed event in the history of policing," says Jerome Skolnick, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who is writing a book on brutality. "It had a dramatic effect on the police world - especially management."

But in a country that traditionally harbors ambivalent feelings toward its men and women in blue, differences persist over what lessons have been learned since that fateful night in March and how prevalent the problem of police brutality really is.

"Certainly there is increased awareness and sensitivity to the problem of police abuse," says Herman Goldstein, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin.

"You are talking about changing the entire behavior pattern of cops," says John Lindquist, a sociologist in San Antonio, Texas. "They may be able to clean up their act for awhile. But then they revert back."

No comprehensive statistics exist on the extent of police brutality in America and those that are available are suspect. Trends are hard to identify because cities use different reporting techniques. Some citizens are also hesitant to report abuses.

One indicator, the nationwide total of violent, racial, or police misconduct episodes reported to the US Justice Department, has held steady at about 8,000 a year since 1984 but jumped to 9,800 in the year since the Rodney King beating. The number of police brutality cases investigated by the FBI went up from 2,427 in 1990 to 3,057 last year.

Recession has strapped police departments already dealing with a 38 percent increase in murder, rape, and other violent crimes in the past six years. Early returns of an annual study of the nation's 17,000 police departments shows that 85 percent expect a drop in funding this year. The last decade saw "absolutely no increase in police manpower nationwide," says Gerald Arenberg, head of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, which is conducting the survey.

In Los Angeles, the Police Misconduct Lawyers Referral Service, a local watchdog group, says complaint filings against southern California police departments jumped from 2,654 in 1990 to 3,888 in 1991. The increase, though, says Karol Heppe, head of the service, may be due to greater awareness of the importance of stepping forward.

That awareness has helped spur police departments to purchase video equipment for cars, the biggest, single impact of the Rodney King incident, according to Mr. Arenberg. By one estimate, 20,000 units were sold last year.

"It has pressured thousands of police departments to install these to reduce liability in cases where it is the officer's word against the citizen's," he says.

For about $1,700, a video camera that can be voice activated by the officer is placed on the dashboard of the patrol car. Tapes are used to help garner convictions. But the videos have their limitations.

"Would you think an officer would be stupid enough to leave the video on if he were going to be involved in a tough situation?" asks Hubert Williams, director of the Police Foundation.

Independent review boards have also received a tremendous boost, according to Sam Walker, a criminologist at the University of Nebraska. Virginia Beach has set up a review panel that will hear appeals of police abuse cases. Seattle recently appointed an outside auditor to monitor police investigations. New boards are being considered in Denver, Des Moines, and statewide in Arizona, says Warner Petterson, an expert on civilian review boards.

New York and Kansas City are trying to identify officers with patterns of abuse. "Instead of thinking of brutality as the problem of all officers," notes Walker, "there is a major push" to remove the bad cops.

In Los Angeles, reform has come slowly. Police have tried to root out abusive officers and moved toward community-based policing. The biggest reforms, though, await June ballot measures recommended by an independent commission that would limit the police chief's tenure and grant more outside control.

Chief Daryl Gates, who opposes the reforms, plans to stay in office until after the election. The search for a successor, meanwhile, is narrowing, even as the trial of the four officers accused in the King beating continues this week.

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