Rodney King redux

Posted: Jul 22, 2002 12:00 AM
Critics say that the recent alleged police brutality in Inglewood, Calif., is just like the Rodney King case. They're right, but for the wrong reasons. If you've been in the caves of Tora Bora, you might not have heard of Jeremy Morse, who is already being described as all four Rodney King cops rolled into one. Morse is the 24-year-old white cop who punched Donovan Jackson, a black 16-year-old, in the jaw. Morse also slammed a handcuffed Jackson against the hood of a car. We know this because it's on videotape. And that's about all we know for sure, even though plenty of folks claim to be positive about all sorts of things that remain unproven. Eyewitnesses and alleged eyewitnesses are coming out of the woodwork, feeding the hysteria. Even the cameraman seems eager to fan the fires. When reporters asked him if he'd seen the cops use racial insults, he responded no, "but they probably did." The taping didn't start until well after the situation got out of hand, so what set things off is a matter of conflicting testimony. Morse's attorney has suggested, perhaps conveniently, that Jackson grabbed Morse's groin with his cuffed hands. Jackson's father and his attorneys claim Morse and his colleagues used racial epithets and attacked the boy without provocation. The cops I've talked to say it looks bad for Morse, but they are highly skeptical that a bunch of policemen would swoop in out of nowhere and, in front of numerous strangers including other cops they didn't know, start beating up a black kid and using the N-word. It's not that there are no racist cops, but even racist cops aren't that stupid. But such objections have no place when the spirit of Rodney King reigns supreme. What unites the King case and the Morse case is the total banishment of middle-ground positions. Just look at Roosevelt Dorn, the African-American mayor of Inglewood. Dorn initially tried to take a responsible wait-and-see position but quickly caved into the passion of the street. After the tape became public, Dorn's first response was that the case "doesn't resemble Rodney King." "You don't have four or five officers beating this one young man," he said. "What I saw was one officer. The only concern I have at this point is to see justice is done. One officer's conduct is not going to destroy this city." But by Tuesday, Dorn was doing the rounds on TV insisting that the spirit of Rodney King was alive and well. Indeed, as a former judge, Dorn assured America that Morse is clearly guilty of no less than four felonies: "No. 1 felony assault. No. 2, assault with a deadly weapon -the deadly weapon, the car. No. 3, battery. Four, child abuse, and," he concluded, "I'm sure that if I looked, there are other crimes." No doubt Morse is not eager for the mayor to "look" at the tape any further. The irony is that Dorn's pandering to public passions is what makes this spectacle resemble the Rodney King fiasco. For example, after the Rodney King verdict came down then-Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley went on television to declare, among other things, "We will not tolerate the savage beating of our citizens by a few renegade cops." Within minutes the L.A. riots broke out. But the most striking similarity between this mess and the Rodney King episode is the role of videotape. It is asserted over and over again that videotapes don't lie. But they do. Especially when the television media selectively edits the video and the print media willfully avoids reporting the facts in an impartial manner. In Lou Cannon's exhaustive 1998 book "Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD," the respected veteran Washington Post reporter demonstrates that the King video was hardly as clear cut as we all thought. The police officers who subdued King may not have acted perfectly, but it is hardly clear that many of them acted improperly, let alone criminally. After an eight-mile high-speed chase, King resisted arrest, throwing off four police officers who tried to hold him down. The police had every reason to believe King was on PCP when he shrugged off two separate 50,000-volt electrical charges, when one is supposed to put a normal man down for the count. Plus, there's plenty evidence that some of the cops in the King case were not rabid racists. Sgt. Stacey Koon, for example, once gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a black transvestite he knew to have AIDS. And he spent his own time to investigate a racist cop who beat two black guys without cause. Thanks to Koon the cop was charged. The verdict that acquitted the Rodney King police may have been wrong on one or two counts -juries are not perfect, but Cannon certainly shows they weren't unreasonable. And yet, when the verdict came down, the media refused to entertain the idea. The Los Angeles Times ran a photo of rioters with the caption, "Empowered by their sense of the verdict's injustice, they are applying a different standard." For all I know, Morse is as guilty as he looks. But the point is, he only looks guilty. That's why we have things called trials.