Police Brutality Stirs Storm Over Immigrants' Rights

THE violent clubbing of two Mexicans after a high-speed chase earlier this week is provoking intense debate over several hot-button issues in the nation's most immigrant-rich and racially diverse state.

The beating by sheriff's deputies - captured vividly on videotape - after an 80-mile freeway chase is stirring response from Washington to Mexico City. Among the concerns:

Police brutality. The incident comes five years to the month after the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King. Because of this, the episode and its aftermath are being highlighted by police watchdog groups as a way to measure the effectiveness of safeguards instituted since the King case.

Immigration. Because of controversial state and federal measures that crack down on illegals and limit numbers of legal immigrants, the harsh treatment is seen by some as a reflection of increasing intolerance of immigrants rather than an isolated instance of police misconduct.

Public safety. The perilous freeway chase has underlined statistics saying criminal pursuits through populated areas endanger other drivers and dramatically increase the potential for police violence when they conclude.

"One of the biggest things that should come out of this incident is the further rethinking of how we hire, train, and employ police in this country," says James Fyfe, a criminologist at Temple University in Philadelphia and author of "Above the Law," a book about the police's excessive use of force.

Police departments across the country have improved with public scrutiny since the Rodney King beating, he says, noting that 33 of the 50 most populous cities now have civilian boards to investigate police misconduct.

But he thinks a more thorough police overhaul is warranted. "Over time, American law enforcement has come to define police as soldiers, crime as a war, and the public as the enemy," Mr. Fyfe says. "They then send undertrained, undereducated, and underscreened personnel into every manner of crisis. Many of them act out. It is a long-term, intractable problem."

Also exacerbating the scrutiny that followed the event is the anti-immigration wave riding high in California now. The incident is being viewed by immigrant and civil rights groups as an outrage but also an opportunity.

"The element of law-enforcement violence has resonated deeply with the immigrant community," says Bobbi Murray, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "That has helped move immigrant rights into the larger arena of human and civil rights where it can bring more needed attention," she says.

The incident occurred on Monday after a ramshackle pickup, filled with suspected illegal immigrants, barreled through a border checkpoint. Border Patrol agents and local law enforcement officers pursued the truck, sometimes reaching 100 m.p.h., as the truck's camper top blew apart, endangering others on the road.

The high-speed chase is seen by some to be a factor in how the sheriff's deputies responded.

Officers are statistically far more inclined to beat suspects after chases because the officers feel a sense of escalating anger over their loss of authority, according to Solutions to Tragedies of Police Pursuit, (STOPP), a national network of pursuit victims.

"When suspects flee instead of respond to officers demands, the officers take it as a personal affront," says Mary Powers, director of the National Coalition on Police Accountability. "Add that to the emotions of anger and you have a situation where a high percentage of suspects get beaten when they are finally apprehended."

ONE major sign of the progress that has been made in raising the profile of police brutality is how quickly the Riverside County sheriff's department reacted to the incident. The department immediately apologized and suspended the two offending officers with pay. Both the Riverside and Los Angeles County sheriff's departments are investigating the matter. The FBI has opened a civil rights investigation.

"It does say something that officials have expressed their embarassment and concern about the actions of their officers," says Carole Watson, board member of a Los Angeles police-watch organization. "That is something that may not have happened so quickly a few years ago."

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