ON a hot August night in 1988, 400 New York City police clashed with demonstrators for six hours in a melee that spread through the lower east side of Manhattan. The skirmishes brought filings of complaints of 143 separate acts of abuse and brutality before the police department's Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB). Nearly three years later, some 14 officers have been found guilty of various offenses, and a half dozen others still await decision.
"The system didn't work," says the New York Civil Liberties Union.
"We feel the board does work," says New York police officer Robert Vilches.
"It would have been much worse without us," says Mary Burke Nicholas, CCRB chairperson.
From these "Tompkins Square Riots" to the homicide charges against five New York Policeman last week to the case of Los Angeles construction worker Rodney King, comes the enduring question: Who polices the police?
The answer, increasingly, is the public itself.
But in 15 major cities since 1983 and in 70 smaller towns over two decades, popular outrage has metamor-phosed into what some call an equally unwieldy monster - the citizen review board. Its purpose is to turn the searchlight back into the precinct house.
In addition have come new efforts to examine police training, recruitment, and procedure. Integration of minorities into departments has also been a major focus, which experts say can be a powerful internal check on police abuse.
More than anything, however, experts say the key to curbing police misconduct lies in the tone set at the top - the central reason so much nationwide attention has focused on Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates.
"All of these are just pieces of the puzzle," says Sam Walker, a criminologist at the University of Nebraska. "Each is essential for a truly accountable police structure that keeps itself out of problems."
Interest in civilian review boards, which grew out of the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, mushroomed in the 1980s as much because of concern about police violence as protecting the public pocketbook. Litigation and victim settlements cost time and money.
Though half of the nation's largest cities have such boards, several experts contend most are toothless - "public relations fronts for police departments," as Mr. Walker puts it.
To be effective, some scholars and police watchdog groups argue that complaint investigations should be handled entirely by civilians and that a nonpolice board or administrator review the probe and make recommendations for disciplinary action.
They maintain that probes conducted part-ly or fully by police - even if reviewed by civilians - aren't impartial.
In a 50-city survey, Mr. Walker identified Detroit, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, and Baltimore as having the most independent boards. Omaha, Neb., and Phoenix are among the least independent.
Even civilian panels have problems, though: They're frequently underfunded and understaffed - and many police don't like them.
"Lawyers are judged by lawyers, doctors by doctors. We should be judged by our peers," says Joseph Mancini, a New York City police union representative.
"What we need are competent, professional civilian oversight mechanisms rather than merely representative ones," says Jerome Skolnick, a police expert at the University of California at Berkeley.
In Los Angeles, the civilian Police Commission that oversees the department has the power to take part in misconduct investigations, but critics say it hasn't done so in the past.
Some want the panel beefed up so it can play a more activist role; one local watchdog group even suggests appointing a special prosecutor. Recently reconstituted, the commission has moved quickly to look into the King beating.
Other ideas on the blotter to check police misconduct:
Training and recruitment. Experts say there is a need for tighter screening of the people police departments hire to winnow out those who might be prone to violence or harbor ethnic stereotypes. Psychological testing - one method of doing it - is costly and controversial, however. "What kind of guy wants to wear a 20-pound belt of bullets, clubs, cuffs, and mace?" asks John Elliot, a criminologist at Trinity University in San Antonio. "By definition, you attract a personality predisposed to power and action."
Once in the academy, many of today's recruits are given several hours of "cultural awareness" training to enhance sensitivity to ethnic differences and other behavior they will encounter on the street. Some experts would like to see this kind of schooling increased and continued throughout an officer's career.
Cities such as Miami are sending all members of the force through such courses.
Part of San Francisco's core curriculum is to bring in gays, lesbians, blacks, and the homeless to talk to police. In line with a California law passed last year, the visitors interact with recruits in the field and prepare videotapes for senior officers.
"Certainly cops need nuts and bolts on the law," says John Crew, director of the Police Practices Project, a San Francisco advocacy group. "But they also need some feeling for the communities into which they are going."
Still, there are limits to tutorials. "It's pretty tough to change attitudes in four to six hours," says Cassandra Johnson, head of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.
Integration. Departments have made uneven progress in putting blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities in blue. Nudged by federal affirmative-action laws, police are doing better than many other American institutions, experts say, but some cities lag behind and not enough is being done to put minorities in top positions.
In a study of departments in the 50 largest US cities, the University of Nebraska's Walker found that 45 percent made "significant" progress between 1983 and 1988 in hiring black officers, while 17 percent reported a decline. Figures for Hispanics were similar: 42 percent increased, 11 percent declined. The number of women wearing badges is up nationwide.
Detroit, Atlanta, and Washington are among the best, the study says, while Cleveland, New York, and Baltimore are among the worst. Los Angeles has a higher percentage of blacks on the force than in the population at large, but fewer Hispanics.
"The L.A. beating is as good a case imaginable for the further integration of police departments," Mr. Elliot says, noting that a black presence among the white officers at the King beating may have mitigated it. Mr. King, a black, was beaten by a group of white officers in Los Angeles March 3.
Chief Gates said recently: "I've hired more blacks ... Hispanics ... women than any other chief in the history of the LAPD."
Leadership. Experts concur that the moral and professional tone set at the top is of paramount importance in curbing excessive force.
In a culture as closed as the police, department brass not only determines day-to-day behavior but influences the kind of officers a force attracts.
To help foster the right atmosphere, many departments (among them Madison, Wis., and Houston, Tex.) have adopted explicit "value statements" guiding police behavior.
The old rules of conduct - "don't use more force than necessary" - are being replaced by policies that take into account community needs and human values.
As David Bayley, a New York criminologist, puts it: "The only people who will stop police brutality in the end are other cops."