THE brutal clubbing here of a black man by white police officers - captured in detail March 3 by an amateur video cameraman - has reignited one of the most heated nationwide debates on police brutality and racism since the civil rights era. The episode has become a catalyst for struggles in several major cities to form independent, civilian review boards to monitor the conduct of law enforcement agencies and to prosecute violations outside existing police structures. It has underlined the recent failures of public and political support for such boards. And depending how key city officials conduct the administering of justice and translate lessons into future reforms, the episode continues to glow here like a heated tinder waiting to flash.
``People are reawakening to the same realities that shocked them when civil rights footage showed blacks being hosed and cattle-prodded in the '60s,'' says Charles Banner-Haley, a Colgate University professor who studies civil rights abuses of minorities. Formal demonstrations of public outrage have been organized from the California state house to Los Angeles City Hall, across the South, and in several Eastern cities.
``What is most disturbing is, this episode is not an aberration, it is the tip of the iceberg in cities big and small,'' says Dr. Banner-Haley.
Echoing statements by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and several groups that monitor such abuses, Phil Gutis, national spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), says: ``The only thing that separates this from incidents reported every day is compelling visual evidence that is turning everyone's stomach.''
The video shows officers kicking and beating Rodney King, an unemployed construction worker, more than 50 times with their nightsticks after subduing him with electric-shock ``stun'' guns and handcuffs.
Officials of the United States Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) say national statistics are hard to compile because of sheer numbers of cities and variances in reporting categories. But Justice Department spokesman Obern Rainey says the nationwide total of violent, racial, or police misconduct episodes reported to Justice has held steady at about 8,000 a year since 1984, down slightly from more than 10,000 a year in the years 1978-83.
The Police Misconduct Lawyers Referral Service in Los Angeles says it receives and documents 250 complaints a month on police departments in southern California, 50 percent of which include physical injury, 25 percent of which require hospitalization. The service received 127 such complaints on the LAPD in January and February.
``This case is in no sense unusual. We get so many complaints that are identical to [the King case] it's not even funny,'' says Karol Heppe, executive director of the referral service. She notes that the civil suits arising from the brutality cases cost the taxpayers millions annually, but few are successfully prosecuted.
Prosecutors are seeking grand-jury indictments for against three officers this week. The incident has become the focal point of editorial pages, write-in/call-in radio programs, and television talk shows in several states. The debate is being fueled by the replaying on nationwide television of the videotape.
Civil libertarians, sociologists, and criminologists say the case underscores several issues, questions, and lessons:
Justifiable vs. excessive use of force. ``Why are there nearly a dozen policemen, all white, surrounding one black man, watching the beating?'' asks Al Reiss, a Yale professor and criminologist. ``Their willing collaboration or acquiescence raises several questions about police culture ... training, recruitment, and procedure ... as will their cooperating or not with prosecutors.''
In the context of compelling statistics, says Dr. Reiss, ``hanging the police and calling it a rare incident does not get at the problem. Changing the organization or its leadership does.''
Self-control of police/expulsion of offenders. Nationwide statistics show that a minority of officers, many repeat offenders, are involved in violence cases. ``There need to be mechanisms to rid departments of the violence-prone,'' says John Lindquist, a sociologist at Trinity University in San Antonio. ``Police academies are good at teaching cadets constitutional law, how to handle weapons, drive, and deal with traffic,'' he adds. ``They teach precious little in interpersonal relations. O fficers find themselves in situations of frustration and anger they can't control, and let it loose.''
Integration of police departments. ``The fact that no black officers were present clearly had something to do with this,'' says John Elliot, a political scientist at Kenyon College. ``A more integrated police force could clearly dampen instances of racist brutality.''
Videotape as deterrent or invasion of privacy. Though the growing use of videotape may be a dramatic deterrent to future episodes, some warn against its overuse. ``If every citizen who doesn't like what his neighbor is doing sells off a tape to the local police or TV station for every alleged crime, our system of jurisprudence will be in serious problems,'' says Banner-Haley.