IN the spartan second-floor office, four phones log 50 calls a day. A coed says she was punched by a police man breaking up a campus party simply because she asked for his badge number. A mother tells of her teenage son who stole a car, but later surrendered to police quietly - only to be attacked by their German shepherd. The complaints coming into the Police Misconduct Lawyer Referral Service, a local watchdog group, deal with allegations of police abuse in southern California. But they are similar to those logged with almost any legal-advocacy group in the country.
For years, such accounts have quietly trickled into law offices and police precincts. Now, in the wake of the videotaped beating of a black man by white police in Los Angeles, they lie at the heart of a searing national debate over police brutality in America.
In the 19 days since the tape was shot and endlessly played, outrage over the incident has rocked the police and political establishment here, spurred a nationwide probe of police misconduct, and galvanized the civil rights movement as no other event in a quarter century.
The episode has also prompted the most extensive reappraisal of the nation's 600,000 men and women in blue since Frank Serpico blew the whistle on police corruption in New York in the 1960s. ``Police misconduct is an American habit that has existed since the turn of the century,'' says Al Reiss, a Yale criminologist. ``Nobody knew how prevalent it was then, nor do they now. But its power to sicken and sadden is shocking us anew.''
Sharp differences exist over the extent of police brutality in America today. Some experts argue improved police training and more integrated departments have lead to a decline in police violence. Others contend that lingering racism, meaner streets, and a society that demands tough treatment of criminals is fostering more baton tactics in many cities.
``I think we are better off than 20 years ago,'' says David Bayley, a police expert at the State University of New York at Albany.
``I think the situation is worse,'' counters Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation, a research group.
The problem is difficult to gauge because no comprehensive statistics exist. And the phenomenon involves an institution, the police, that is a closed culture - ``almost monastic,'' in the words of one researcher.
What figures do exist reveal a contradictory and incomplete picture. In New York, the number of complaints filed against police - everything from charges of excessive force to ethnic slurs - dropped from 5,120 in 1986 to 3,515 in 1989.
Houston police have seen a 10 percent decline in each of the past three years. Even in Los Angeles, police say the trend is down: from 1,813 in 1986 to 1,556 last year.
On the other hand, excessive-force complaints have risen recently in Chicago, while they have seesawed in Philadelphia.
Researchers say many who suffer police injustices don't file complaints, either because they fear the process or because they feel nothing will be done.
How police departments deal with complaints varies widely. Some take them by phone. Others require personal appearances to file sworn statements - a process that Jim Fyfe, a criminologist at American University, says can feel like ``you are walking into the shadow of the valley of death.''
Some cities have set up offices outside police stations to receive complaints. Abuse investigations in a few cities are handled entirely by civilians. In most cases, the police do the probing internally, with the results frequently reviewed by a civilian board.
Even when complaints are filed, many critics contend nothing ever comes of them. They argue that a ``code of silence'' often takes over, in which one officer refuses to ``rat'' and may even corroborate a false story.
In New York in 1989, the civilian complaint review board - comprised of police and civilian investigators - found ``substantiation'' for 8 percent of the filed allegations of police misconduct. Also in 1989, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) saw 1,800 complaints of misconduct result in 1,044 disciplinary actions ranging from six months suspension to verbal reprimand.
In Boston last year, 13 officers were fired and 37 suspended as a result of investigations into 472 complaints of police abuse.
``The majority of complaints filed with police departments are either unfounded or not sustained,'' says Darrel Stephens, head of the Police Executive Research Forum. He estimates that 5 to 10 percent of complaints result in disciplinary action.
Educated and integrated
Many of the complaints are false - ``filed to get back at police,'' says Sgt. Dean Anderson, an LAPD watch commander. And allegations are difficult to prove: It often comes down to the officer's word against the person arrested.
Experts who believe police violence in America is declining cite several reasons: better training with additional doses of ``cultural awareness''; higher education levels (50 percent of police are college trained today vs. 20 percent in 1960); and the integration of departments.
``I think the King case is an aberration,'' says Jerome Skolnick, a police expert at the University of California, Berkeley, referring to the March 3 beating, for which four police have been indicted. ``I think the LAPD is an aberration.''
Many blacks, among others, disagree. They see many forces contributing to a harsher climate in the squad car: enduring racial tensions; new cops who are less experienced (38 percent of LAPD officers have fewer than three years' service); greater firepower in the hands of criminals, which forces cops to react quicker.
Some suggest a clogged criminal-justice system encourages cops to mete out justice on the street. And the nation's prolonged war on drugs has put added pressure on police.
``Politicians don't want to take responsibility for the signals they are giving us,'' says Gerald Arenberg of the National Association of Chiefs of Police. ``They are literally saying, `go out there and bash their heads in.' ''
Atty. Gen. Richard Thornburgh, who has ordered a federal probe of police brutality complaints, counters: ``There is nothing inconsistent between aggressive law enforcement and the observance of civil liberties.''
The problem in L.A.
In Los Angeles, the pressures facing cops are particularly pronounced. The nation's most polyglot city has the nation's third highest rate of violent crime and a relatively small police force: 8,300 officers for 3.5 million people - the lowest ratio of cops to residents of any major US city.
Yet those who see a pattern of police brutality in Los Angeles don't blame it on lack of resources. LAPD Chief Daryl Gates is under pressure to resign: Critics say if he hasn't condoned a cowboy mentality, neither has he done enough to rein it in.
``He sets the moral tone,'' says Karol Heppe of the Police Misconduct Lawyer Referral Service.
Boosters counter that no one incident should impugn the force or the chief. Sergeant Anderson says dozens of calls of support come in daily - part of what he calls a ``silent majority.''
``Los Angeles will handle this better than other cities with the same problem,'' says Matt Silberman, a Bucknell University criminologist, citing the department's ``history of professionalism.''