Los Angeles Braces Itself As Federal Civil Trial Opens In the Rodney King Case

IN the Dodger Stadium parking lot here, three speeding police cars screech to a halt beside a bandage-wrapped dum-my. The cars disgorge six gun-wielding officers who retrieve the dummy, then exit, sirens blaring.

With preparations such as these new victim-rescue exercises by the Los Angeles Police Department, this city is bracing itself for its biggest test of community, police, and race relations since the Los Angeles riots last spring. That test starts tomorrow with the federal civil trial of four white officers accused in the beating of black motorist Rodney King on March 3, 1991.

Because the four officers were already acquitted on state criminal charges for the same beating - and because their trial precedes by just weeks that of four black men accused of beating a white trucker - several community leaders say the city is at a flash point.

"There is an implicit threat that if the results of these trials go against what blacks perceive as their own interests, then this city will go up in flames again," says Robert Pugsley, a professor of law at Southwestern University in Los Angeles.

"My reading is that most people are very worried about [these new trials]," says Ramona Ripston, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

One factor fueling anger among many blacks and Hispanics is the fact that bail for the suspects in the beating of white trucker Reginald Denny was set at $500,000, while bail for the white defendants in the King case was only $5,000.

"The incongruities in the way the justice system has treated the four blacks versus the four whites are already very disturbing to minority communities who are watching very closely," Ms. Ripston says.

The United States legal community is watching closely, as well. Civil libertarians are wondering how a change of presidential administration and nearly two years of public focus on police brutality might affect the new trials.

"We are curious [to see] how a new president who says he is committed to urban issues and racial harmony will approach the first big test of justice on his watch," says David Schultz, a constitutional lawyer at Trinity University in Texas.

Several national legal experts have suggested that a guilty verdict in the trial of the L.A. police officers is far from assured - even though federal prosecutors must prove only that "a preponderance of evidence" supports a guilty verdict. State prosecutors were unable to meet the stricter, "beyond a reasonable doubt" burden of proof.

On the other hand, the federal trial will feature a jury drawn from racially diverse metropolitan Los Angeles, which is expected to favor the prosecution. The mostly white jury in the earlier state case was drawn from suburban Simi Valley.

"This time, the justice system itself is on trial here," says John Mack, president of the Urban League's Los Angeles chapter.

The Simi Valley jury's not-guilty verdict touched off the worst US riots of this century. Fifty-three people were killed and nearly $1 billion in property was damaged. Rebuilding has been far slower than most predicted. State, federal, and local funds promised to relief agencies have been slow in coming, and in some cases have not appeared at all.

Los Angeles is determined to avoid a replay of last year's violence. New police chief Willie Williams won high marks for his quick containment of a potential riot on Dec. 14. Protesters at a rally for black defendants in the Denny beating case tried to loot a gas station and started pelting cars with bottles. In response, hundreds of officers poured in, sealed off the area, and carried out mass arrests.

"There is no question that the police have a higher confidence in leadership from the top now," says Sgt. Robert Blackwell, an officer in the metro division. "Our reading is that the community has gained confidence as well."

The police department also has prepared a detailed emergency plan designed specifically for riots, with better communication strategies and a clear policy for calling in outside agencies such as the National Guard. The city began in November to put every officer on the police force through 16 hours of specialized riot training. Exercises include new citizen rescue techniques and work with crowd dispersal, including use of rubber bullets and chemical agents.

"These exercises have been a tremendous boost to me," says police Sgt. Ted Matthews, who adds he has not had a refresher course in some techniques in over 14 years.

Besides improved police readiness, Mayor Tom Bradley has launched a program that will send neighborhood volunteers, ministers, teachers, and even gang members into several communities to help head off violence.

Despite such measures, observers say the long-entrenched pattern of racism identified by an independent investigation into the Los Angeles police department has not yet been adequately addressed. "This trial will be a chance to address that pattern if justice prevails," says Clifton Biggs, a resident of South Central Los Angeles.

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