Joe Friday's Black Eye

`TO protect and serve.'' That is the policeman's motto. It evokes a high sense of duty and ethics.

The behavior of Los Angeles police officers, videotaped while beating a man arrested after a purported high-speed car chase, seems an egregious abridgment of both duty and ethics. By almost any standards, this was a case of blatant brutality.

The video, taken by a chance bystander, shows Rodney Glenn King, a black, being hit more than 50 times and kicked seven times by three officers - while 10 more officers stood by and did nothing. A grand jury has already begun a hearing into the case, and the three officers who assaulted King face charges.

This incident came on the heels of the harassment by LA policemen of several prominent black athletes - men the police did not recognize and whose cases came to light because of their sports fame. Clearly, a systemwide examination of police methods and ethics is in order, starting with the tone set by police chief Daryl Gates. These few highly visible cases of brutality may indicate bigger problems in the department.

The policeman's motto was coined, admittedly, in an era of far less crime. Urban violence and the proliferation of weapons make today's streets seem a war zone to police. Just this week officers in Los Angeles raided the houses of gang leaders and found a cache of 23 semiautomatic weapons believed to have been used in five murders.

Also, specifics in the King case aren't known. The videotape shows only the beating. Some officers say King, recently released from prison, charged the first officers to reach him.

Even if this is true, however, the beating of King was way out of line.

Ironically, the officers who beat King or stood passively by injured, most of all, their own reputation. For the city's force of 8,400 men and women, most of whom quietly go about the job of protecting and serving the public, this is a truly sad moment.

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