L.A. Tries to Restore Calm Following Police Acquittals


THIS city's worst social unrest since Watts in 1965 goes well beyond the precarious state of race relations in the nation's most ethnically diverse region.

While the trigger for massive upheavals here was the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers on brutality charges, the anger now surfacing reflects far deeper concerns about the criminal justice system, police-community relations, and urban decay - problems facing a host of United States cities.

What city leaders had hoped would be a definitive close to an emotional year in the city's history instead mushroomed into a broader social and civil turmoil that has seen neighborhoods burn, the National Guard mobilized, and police in riot gear. At press time, nine had been killed; 138 injured.

The test for Los Angeles now is to see if it can turn crisis into conciliation and channel the anger that has spilled into the streets into political consensus about its institutions. "We've learned we can't just sit back and let a jury fix our problems," says Jack Katz, a criminologist at University of California at Los Angeles.

Early efforts by leaders to restore calm could not contain the spasm of outrage that started in predominantly black South-Central Los Angeles but spread across several communities.

Violence began within hours after an all-white jury in Simi Valley returned acquittals on all counts but one arising from the March 3, 1991, beating of motorist Rodney King. A mistrial was declared on one count.

Reaction to the verdict was pointed and swift. While the officers expressed relief, Mayor Tom Bradley called it beyond "my wildest imagination." Lewis Yablonsky, a police expert at California State University at Northridge, said, "In my 40 years experience, I have never seen a more appalling verdict."

"What happened to Rodney King was the Ku Klux Klan in blue uniforms instead of white sheets," said Bishop Carl Bean, a local black leader.

Nor was outrage confined to Los Angeles. "Whether justice was done will always be a question," says Gerald Arenberg, head of the National Association of Chiefs of Police.

Hubert Williams, director the Washington, D.C.-based Police Foundation, said, "This raises the issue about the legitimacy of the system to resolve grievances where an officer is white and defendant is black."

National civil rights leaders saw the verdict as another example that the criminal justice system works one way for minorities and another for whites. The US Justice Department has agreed to launch a federal civil-rights probe.

Critics of the verdict believe there might have been a different outcome if the trial hadn't been held in Simi Valley, a white suburb north of L.A. where many retired police officers live. But jurors who came forward to explain their decision said they acted on the evidence. They said they believed motorist King looked menacing enough to warrant officers using the level of force they did.

The videotape notwithstanding, the not-guilty verdict may not be as surprising as it seemed. Criminologists say police brutality cases are difficult to prove: Juries are always hesitant to convict officers for action taken in the line of duty. "People like to give them the benefit of the doubt," says Jim Fyfe, a criminologist at American University, who often testifies in brutality trials.

This explanation does little to soothe the outrage felt by many city residents. On the first night after the verdict, a state of emergency was declared in the city as dozens of fires raged - more than during the Watts riots. A curfew was imposed in certain areas.

Although there was widespread looting and some shooting, Police Chief Daryl Gates said there were far fewer people on the streets than in 1965. Firefighters who were pinned down by neighborhood snipers had to be rescued by SWAT teams.

Community activists hope to channel some of the anger into political reform.

"This will hopefully focus [blacks] on the reason [Dr. Martin Luther] King died and that our struggle has not taken us as far as we thought," said Bishop Bean. "We must come together in the same way we conquered the legacy of slavery and the '60s."

Ballot measures scheduled for June limit the police chief to two five-year terms and give more control to a civilian Police Commission, the City Council, and mayor. Several sides, already girding for battle, see renewed strength in the not-guilty verdict: Those against reform claim vindication for the long-entrenched programs of the LAPD and Chief Gates. Those in favor of reform are harnessing local anger.

"I feel really sad for the black community," said one South-Central resident as she watched a neighborhood grocery burn. "This is only going to hurt us. It is going to take years to rebuild."

Many activists are renewing their push for Chief Gates - who has said he will retire in June - to step down now. They want Chief-designate Willie Williams, the first black chief ever appointed here, to begin a sorely needed healing process. But though Mr. Williams has developed a strong reputation for enhanced community-based policing and has cracked down hard on maverick police officers, most feel his attempts to heal frayed community relations now will be tougher.

The problems facing the city, though, go beyond its police department. The rioting is likely to touch off another round of soul-searching over judicial fairness, urban decay, and the ability of the rapidly changing populace to adapt its institutions.

"I hope people don't tear apart the community," said Tracy Robinson, as she protested outside the LAPD headquarters. "But I also hope more people realize that there has been a great injustice done."

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