Another Rodney King? Not this time

The similarities between the beatings of Rodney King and Donovan Jackson are obvious. Both are black males. Both were stopped in their vehicles by police.

In 1991, Mr. King was pummeled by white Los Angeles police officers even after he appeared to stop resisting. Other officers did nothing. The King beating was captured on video and ignited national rage.

Mr. Jackson, who is 16, was punched and slammed on July 6 by a white police officer in Inglewood, Calif., after he appeared to stop resisting. Other officers did little. The Jackson beating has ignited protests and demands for a Justice Department probe.

But that's where the similarities end. After the King beating, then-LAPD chief Daryl Gates initially stonewalled. He claimed it was an aberration and that the LAPD was not racist or brutal. But it was easy for Mr. Gates to try to weasel out of harm's way. He had incurred the wrath of blacks for a string of shoot-from-the-lip remarks bordering on racism.

The LAPD was notorious among blacks as racist, seeming to operate as an occupying army in black neighborhoods while the top brass and compliant city officials winked. LA ultimately paid the price. Following the acquittal of the officers in the King beating, the city exploded in violence.

A decade later, LA is still paying. The Justice Department last year issued a sweeping consent decree mandating that the LAPD end alleged racial profiling, develop firm standards for punishing excessive force violations, and take more proactive steps to improve minority-community relations.

In the Jackson case, there was no Gates to fan racial flames and blame the victim. Inglewood's police chief and mayor, who are African-American, instantly branded the beating "disturbing." The mayor promised a full investigation and demanded that the officer be prosecuted if any criminal conduct is found.

The Inglewood Police Department, unlike the LAPD of 1991, has a significant number of African-American officers and officials, and has never been considered a smaller-town carbon copy of the old head-knocking LAPD. The FBI has also announced it will conduct a civil rights investigation into the beating.

There are still many cops who equate enforcing the law with old-fashioned knocking of black heads. And there are still police officials in deep denial that their officers racially profile. Yet many police officials are collecting data aimed at eliminating racial profiling and have implemented extensive community relations training programs, embraced community policing, and taken complaints of misconduct much more seriously.

These actions have gone far to defuse the white-hot rage of many blacks toward police.

A Justice Department study in 1999 found that blacks in a dozen cities generally applauded the police. That sea change in black attitudes was evident in LA this year when African-Americans rallied behind embattled former LAPD chief Bernard Parks when the mayor refused to back him for a second term. They credited Mr. Parks with tough disciplining of officers, a plunge in police shootings and use-of-force violations, and vastly improving relations with minorities.

After the Jackson beating, many blacks were even willing to give the accused officer the benefit of the doubt. Some wondered out loud what, if anything, Jackson had done to provoke the officers.

Still, the Jackson beating should send a signal to police officials that they must act swiftly against officers who behave lawlessly. Remember, these days there's likely to be a video camera watching.

• Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of 'The Crisis in Black and Black' (Middle Passage Press, 2000).

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