Rodney King Trial Tests Police and Politicians

L.A. authorities walk a tightrope: They must prevent unrest without using excessive force

AS Los Angeles and the rest of the world await the outcome of the Rodney King trial, city officials are making one last pitch for calm - edged with a warning.

The everything-is-all-right message is aimed at a segment of the populace so anxious over the possibility of unrest that some are all but laying out their fatigues.

The warning is directed at those who may want to punctuate any misgivings about the verdict with a pistol or a match. The jut-jawed message from police: We will be there in force.

With the federal civil rights trial of four Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Mr. King set to go to the jury as early as today, this city faces one of the major tests in its history.

One test will be for the police force, which was widely criticized for a tardy and tepid response to last year's rioting, to see how firmly and swiftly it might act if civil unrest arises this year.

At the same time, however, law enforcement authorities will have to exercise fairness and restraint so they aren't accused of using excessive or selective force - questions raised by the King trial in the first place.

Also under the microscope will be the city's political leaders, some of whom came under fire last spring, and a multiethnic populace that perennially seems to be the area's greatest strength and threat.

"We don't expect a major upheaval," says Mark Whitlock of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, a major inner-city church. "But we certainly expect someone to be found guilty. I think you will see some reaction if they aren't, but it probably won't be widespread."

Whatever the reaction is, it will be of more than parochial interest. In an age of media omnipresence, the verdict will be beamed instantly around the world, as will every muscle twitch in the city itself. Thus L.A. will help set the tone for the rest of urban America - parts of which, such as Atlanta, Seattle, and San Francisco, have been undergoing their own riot readiness.

Anxiety has been running high here. Unrest after last year's acquittals of the officers in a state-court proceeding resulted in 53 deaths and $1 billion in property damage. But the preparations for another possible round of violence have at times taken on an air of panic.

Some residents are talking about leaving town. Others have been asking police about the legality of shooting trespassers. In certain upscale neighborhoods, homeowners are making plans to barricade streets. Everyone, it seems, is trooping to the local gun shop.

"It is amazing how swiftly we reversed from reforming the police and rebuilding the city to this bunker mentality," says Mike Davis, an author who has written extensively about Los Angeles. "One wonders what is going to happen with all these guns when some domestic argument breaks out."

The seeming panic strikes some as odd. Mike Hernandez, a city councilman whose district includes some of the areas hardest hit by last year's riots, says the people he talks to are just concerned with "day-to-day problems. I don't see them talking about rioting."

Mr. Davis concurs, contending that the idea of "history mechanically repeating itself is absurd."

Still, the threat is real enough, and the panic in many minds palpable enough, that city officials are mobilizing to play the role of protector - even as they are also acting as therapist.

Mayor Tom Bradley and Police Chief Willie Williams held a press conference this week to project an aura of readiness and reassurance. "Take it easy," Mr. Williams admonished citizens. "We're here, we're not going to fail you this time."

He vows to have as many as 6,500 officers on the street by the time the verdict is read. The Los Angeles Police Department will be backed up by sheriff's deputies, the California Highway Patrol, and the National Guard, all of which, like the LAPD, have received special riot training.

While many welcome the presence of the men and women in blue, others worry that all that weaponry may push the city over the line from preparation to provocation. "Everybody is armed to the gills," says Dr. Grace Payne of the Westminster Neighborhood Association, a community group in Watts. "The police are all geared up, and I think the city has made them feel it is all right to shoot."

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