Police incident shows how L.A. has changed

Videotape of white officer's violent arrest of black youth brings protests, but no riots.

At a meeting of African American activists here, the rhetoric is impassioned – even fiery. Speaker after speaker rises to decry the beating of a black teenager by a white police officer in Inglewood.

They want change. They want local monitoring of police activities. They want psychiatric tests for new officers. They also, almost uniformly, want something else: no rioting in the streets.

"We are not going to fight violence with violence this time around," says Robert Taylor, one of the heads of the National Alliance for Positive Action, which sponsored the meeting.

One week after the beating was captured unwittingly on videotape, the incident is exposing how much Los Angeles and much of the rest of the nation has changed since Rodney King – and hasn't.

Across the country, experts say police are better trained about sensitive racial issues since the King police brutality case 10 years ago. There is more civilian oversight of law-enforcement agencies. There are more ways for citizens to lodge complaints against rogue cops.

At the same time, the racial climate, particularly in Los Angeles, has changed enough that few people expect a spasm of violence like the one that occurred after the white police officers were acquitted in the King case, culminating in the costliest riots in US history.

"Ten years ago, this was solely a black vs. white issue, and blacks proved they would not be silenced, says Najee Ali, a black Muslim minister who has become a lead protesters since the beating last week of Donovan Jackson, a 16-year-old black, by a white officer. "Today, there is lots of careful outreach efforts across religious, racial, age, and ethnic lines. We are trying hard to stay focused on justice without getting polarized like we were then."

Yet none of this is to say that problems don't persist and that passions aren't inflamed. The beating, in fact, has become the latest cause célèbre of a variety of high-profile black activists. On Sunday, the Rev. Al Sharpton was scheduled to lead a rally here. Dick Gregory and Martin Luther King III marched Friday and Saturday.

Concerned about the magnitude of the incident, Attorney General John Ashcroft dispatched his top civil rights lawyer to Los Angeles last week to look into whether any charges should be filed. Community leaders are vowing to stage protests nonstop until the legal issues are dealt with.

Some national experts say the incident shows that, despite a decade of police reform, civilian resolve drops and abuse rises as soon as police conduct moves out of the spotlight.

True, it is getting harder for cops to operate out of the public eye these days. One of the reforms that gained momentum after the King beating was installing video cameras in police cars: One-third now carry them.

At the same time, 39 percent of American households own at least one videocamera, which helps explain how the latest incident was captured unexpectedly by a bystander, Mitch Crooks, who was watching from a hotel room. (Mr. Crooks has subsequently been arrested by Inglewood police on outstanding warrants, including petty theft.) Another police beating was recently captured on videotape in Oklahoma.

"Ironically, the Rodney King incident was such a shock because nobody believed such things were going on," says Mary Powers, director of the National Coalition on Police Accountability, a Chicago-based police watchdog group. "Now, we've been exposed to so many similar cases, we are not as shocked as we were then."

She and others believe some large cities have instituted major police reforms with strong results. But many – including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami – have largely not, despite concerted efforts.

Beyond large cities, smaller towns and smaller police departments like Inglewood have remained largely untouched by the decade of reform fever.

"As a nation we really haven't come that far," says Ms. Powers.

Local activists are calling for closer neighborhood monitoring of police activities. They also want yearly drug, alcohol, and psychiatric testing of officers.

Despite similar calls by a national blue-ribbon panel, the Christopher Commission, which was established after the King beating, most have not been implemented. Moreover, the Los Angeles Police Department (of which Inglewood is not a part) is still reeling from a larger scandal. The "Ramparts" probe has implicated dozens of cops for planting evidence, and intimidating and even shooting innocent suspects.

But several experts say one of the biggest differences between the King beating and the Jackson incident is that public officials have come out early with strong condemnations. Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn has repeatedly held that the officers responsible for the beating be fired and prosecuted. City police chief Ronald Banks, who is black, says he is disappointed and concerned over the taped images, but is rejecting the notion that the incident was racially motivated.

"Because the city and police department have acted quickly and definitively to accept and corroborate that the incident clearly involves excessive force, tensions have been far calmer than they otherwise would be," says Sam Walker, a criminologist at the University of Nebraska who studies police accountability. "What is the far more prevalent pattern is that the authorities deny or stonewall, inflaming the situation even further."

Cooler heads have also prevailed in the Inglewood incident partly because the King and other high-profile abuse cases have shown that a rush to judgment can multiply misunderstanding. Although criminologists such as Mr. Walker say the tape clearly depicts excessive force, because the victim is wearing handcuffs, many leaders are urging trust in the courts before taking action.

"People have recognized that this video is only one piece of the legal puzzle and are allowing for a more measured examination of the entire situation before passing judgment," says Bob Steele, an ethics scholar at the Poynter Institute, a media think tank.

Others note that the black community has seen changes in the operation and discipline of the LAPD. Even though its former chief, Bernard Parks, was ousted by the police commission just weeks ago, most felt that he was a catalyst in putting the harshest days of the department behind it.

A "lot of progress has been made" on the issue of racial profiling in particular, says Mark Schlosberg, a police specialist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

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