A Call for Calm in L. A.

AS the federal civil rights trial of four Los Angeles police officers accused of beating Rodney King nears an end, southern Californians - and the rest of urban America - need to reach for calm instead of their weapons.

Anxiety is understandably running high. Unrest after last year's state court acquittals resulted in 53 deaths and nearly $1 billion in property damage in Los Angeles. Sporadic violence broke out in other cities as well.

Yet preparations for another possible round of rioting are taking on an air of panic. At police and other forums across Los Angeles, citizens rise to ask: Is it legal to shoot trespassers? Should we be leaving town?

Rumors are rife that Uzi-armed gangs plan to target affluent neighborhoods. Residents in many areas are laying plans to barricade streets. Sales of handguns in the county reached a record high of 113,900 in 1992, enough to arm one in every 75 residents.

City officials and police are trying to soothe fears. Their message, in essence, is: We are prepared to handle whatever arises, and the only thing to get hysterical about is hysteria itself. The words are worth pondering. Things are different from what they were a year ago.

For one thing, the Los Angeles Police Department, widely criticized for a slow response last year, is poised for swift action if needed this year. Police, sheriff's deputies, and the National Guard have been holding high-profile riot-training exercises.

Emergency communication is improved. New Police Chief Willie Williams is in regular contact with Mayor Tom Bradley, something that didn't happen last year between the mayor and then-Chief Daryl Gates. Community groups are preaching calm. Teachers are holding discussions in the classroom.

A city alert, but not panicked, can send a collective message that will help deter unrest.

The problem will come if preparations step over the line and become provocation. An overzealous armed citizenry could spawn vigilantism. Hype and hysteria put more pressure on police, who are under enough pressure to be firm but fair and restrained, the whole issue behind the King trial itself.

Worst of all, too much focus on riot readiness diverts attention from problems facing the inner city - blight, joblessness, racial and ethnic tensions - woes that no court verdict can redress, but which Los Angeles can still set the tone in tackling for a world looking on.

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