When Police Force Goes Too Far

ABOVE THE LAW: POLICE AND THE EXCESSIVE USE OF FORCE By Jerome Skolnick and James J. Fyfe, Free Press, 313 pp., $24.95.


ANYONE disturbed by the law-enforcement tactics employed against Rodney King or the Branch Davidian religious sect in Waco, Texas, will find absorbing reading in "Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force."

The 1991 videotaped beating of Mr. King by four Los Angeles police officers after a high-speed chase impelled authors Jerome Skolnick and James Fyfe to examine the causes, conducive conditions, and the remedies for excessive force.

"Somewhere deep in the American experience," Skolnick and Fyfe write, "is the idea that the legal order and its system of punishment are inadequate to cope with the problem, whether defined as crime, as immigrants, or as minority groups."

Fear of these things can provoke a reflexive use of excessive force, as the authors demonstrate with examples ranging from frontier vigilante justice to Southern lynchings to Northern race riots to contemporary events, when police assume the role of antidrug warriors in a dangerous urban environment.

The authors, one a former policeman, draw a distinction between unnecessary force and brutality. The first can be an honest mistake correctable by better training. "Hasty cops who force confrontations" is an example of police error that brings the Waco standoff to mind.

Brutality, in contrast, "is employed to control a population thought to be undesirable, undeserving, and underpunished by established law ... to achieve a fantasized social order," they write. Police brutality is often an individual act the perpetrator tries to conceal.

But when four L.A. policemen can strike 56 times in two minutes while 10 other officers look on, as occurred in the King case, that "reveals a deviant organizational culture that must be changed," they write.

Skolnick and Fyfe recommend that police chiefs root out brutality-prone officers from their departments as soon as such officers are detected.

"Deliberate Indifference: A Story of Murder and Racial Injustice" is Howard Swindle's description of a fatal incident of police brutality that focused the eyes of the nation on Texas.

As a boy, Swindle had puzzled over how the otherwise decent people in his all-white town, the kind of people who "take dinner to neighbors who had suffered a death in the family," could also brag that "they'd never live next door to a nigger."

As managing editor for the Dallas Morning News, Swindle was bothered by the same question in the case of Loyal Garner, a black man who was arrested on Christmas Day in 1989 as he drove through Sabine County.

Jailed without being told why, Garner clamored to be allowed at least to call his wife. Three officers took Garner to another room and bludgeoned him into a coma. He died two days later. The crime lifted the rock of obscurity off of Sabine County. Swindle skillfully probes the repulsive things squirming beneath.

White citizens rallied around the officers after a Sabine County grand jury - acutely aware of national media scrutiny - returned indictments against the three men. As in the King case, the officers were tried twice. In the first trial, held in the time-worn county courthouse, the jury returned a verdict of innocent. Jurors in the second trial, held outside the county, found the officers guilty, however, and they were sentenced to prison.

Denial persists in Sabine County. Almost a year after the trial, a town resident complained to Swindle: "There wasn't a race problem here until you people told everyone there was."

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