Rodney King Meltdown

The Rodney King incident stirred angry emotions around the country. I wrote two articles about it for “Police Magazine” and an op-ed piece for the “San Diego Union.” What follows is a slightly edited version of the “Police” article called “Meltdown,” from the June 1991, edition.

Have you noticed the word fallout creeping into news accounts about the videotaped beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers? The incident has become to American law enforcement what the Chernobyl meltdown was to the nuclear power industry. Chernobyl proved that fears about nuclear holocaust were real.

People across the country insist that incidents like the Rodney King beating happen everywhere; that cops should be feared. Not only is the use of force a point of contention, so is the credibility of police officers. In Los Angeles, a prospective juror recently got dismissed from jury duty when he told the prosecutor, “If the police say it. I don’t believe it.” If you don’t believe the cops, you can’t find anybody guilty.

Cops and police departments across the country suffer from the after effects of the King beating. In Washington D.C, a person Officer Roderick Torrence was questioning asked if he intended, “to beat me up like they did Rodney King?” At the opposite end of the country, in the posh community of La Jolla, Officer Bill Farrar was standing on a sidewalk. A spanking new Mercedes-Benz zipped by with the driver waving a parking citation and yelling, “Thanks a lot. Now, I suppose you’ll go beat somebody up.”

According to San Diego police chief Bob Burgeen, the incident will become to handling police arrests, what Miranda became to police interviews.

Farrar, who works for Chief Burgreen and has about 18-years of patrol experience, says, “It’s changing the perspective of people who used to be on the fence, or active police supporters.”  Farrar has a unique perspective.  He volunteers as an employee representative for the police union, standing up for the rights of officers subjected to Internal Affairs investigations.

He tells of a recent incident where officers initiated a citation for littering. The litterbug started fighting and an officer called for backup. Farrar responded to the call because of the potential for public backlash. He noticed several bystanders with cameras and video recorders capturing the action. The investigation of the inevitable complaint is underway.

Farrar says most officers have the attitude of, “I didn’t do anything wrong, and I don’t need any representation.” He insists it’s dangerous for officers to assume they’ll be treated fairly during the scope of an investigation.

Ed Nowicki, executive director of the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers, shares Farrar’s concern. Nowicki says, “Our officers must be accountable, but shouldn’t function under a microscope. There shouldn’t be any backlash because of fear to use force. What police administrators need to look at is, ‘Was the officer’s conduct reasonable?'”

The director of a law enforcement consulting group who asked for anonymity says, “There’s no excuse for what we saw on that videotape, but even if we watched a perfect level of (police) violence on tape, we’d be uncomfortable watching it.”

Ben Hedlund, a patrol supervisor for the Blaine (Minn.) Police Department comments, “I told my guys to be super sensitive because the public is.”  His warnings don’t extend to being careful at the expense of officer safety. The message to officers  is clear:  Be aware the public is watching you and treat people with professional respect–but don’t let up on your safety habits.

Almost certainly, there will be a marked increase in excessive force complaints resulting from eroded public confidence in the police. It’s also probable that department administrations will investigate complaints with increased vigor. Attorney Everett Bobbitt, a former police lieutenant who represents police officer associations says he’s personally involved in three San Diego PD cases, one in Imperial County, and a California state prison case where the results differed from what they would have been before Rodney King. He says, in earlier times, they would have resulted in exoneration or lesser penalties.

San Diego police administrators deny Bobbitt’s assertions. But George Penn, a former assistant city manager for San Diego and presently the city manager for Atlantic City says, “Everett Bobbitt is correct–but he’ll never be able to prove it.”

Ironically, police officers around the country insist that what they saw on the King videotape was wrong. “There’s no excuse for it,” one officer told me. “The officers deserve what they get.” I’ve heard nearly identical words from cops around the country, but not everyone is so critical.

David Pettengill, a corporal with the Coquille City Police Department in Southwestern Oregon takes a contrarian view. “I’m a 20-year-veteran in a town where loggers, ranchers and mill workers work and play hard. It’s awful easy for someone (in city administration) to say, “This shouldn’t have happened. It’s pretty damn hard for someone on the outside to tell us what to do.”

Pettengill believes those outside law enforcement don’t understand the scope of a cop’s duties. “We’re not getting a lot of the training we need… You know, you can be under fire and won’t hear as much adrenalin in the voice as when you turn the overhead lights on in a pursuit.”

This raises two major issues: “What new trends will emerge in police training? And what happened on March 3, to foster the Rodney King Incident?

Consider the environment surrounding the King incident. Rodney King led officers on a pursuit and officers’ adrenaline started pumping. That’s very little information for psychologists to use explaining what happened.

Dr. Dennis Davis, a psychologist specializing in police issues says the phenomenon of “mob mentality” took over. Mob mentality requires four ingredients; a sense of belonging to a group, a sense of personal anonymity, an extremely small number of potential victims and the “element of frustration.”

The videotape clearly depicts the first three ingredients. The frustration came either from the events preceding the beginning of the videotape or from external stimuli. There’s no way to know what elevated the officers’ frustration level. Did their stimuli come from their work environment, their home environment, or a combination of the two.

The answers aren’t readily available, but Sgt. Hedlund points out, “The officers on the scene didn’t appear too afraid of repercussions, based on their radio traffic following the incident.” Cops who don’t fear repercussions under those circumstances almost certainly work in an inapprpriately permissive environment.

Don’t ignore the question of racism. Was Rodney King’s Blackness a contributing factor? A lot of cops deny it emphatically, but racism is absolutely the crux of the national outcry. Will there be renewed emphasis on screening police applicants who might fall prey to racism or the frustration evidenced on the tape?

Davis, himself and African-American, doesn’t think so. “All we can really do is screen out pathology. Psychological testing can’t tell you who will make a good police officer. All we can do is tell if an applicant is hearing voices.”

The anonymous police consultant quoted earlier says it takes a certain boldness to predict who’ll make a successful cop. His organization is working on building a profile. The profile varies from urban to rural areas, and according to regional, cultural, economical and educational differences.

He also points out that pathology can show up in a cop’s behavior that isn’t readily predictable through any existing screening methods. Still, national data bases with hundreds of thousands of respondents indicate that 68 percent of police applicants are screened out during the application process. He adds, we must, “invent the banner of professional policing and obliterate the wall between the police and the public. The King incident will impact training and use of force issues. Greater attention will be given to what officers face.”

Evidence indicates the prediction is already coming true. According to Maril O’Shaughnessy, director of the Ft. Worth Regional Training Academy, the Texas State Legislature is already passing laws requiring more training on minority issues. She confirms it’s getting more difficult to hire cops because so many get eliminated during the psychological screening phases.

Dr. Davis foresees new training emphases. “There will be greater emphasis on self-control and anger management,” he says. He adds that a new professional mentality needs to be taught that stresses the importance of the supervisor’s role, in addition to teaching officers tools to understand themselves.

Police supervisors must be more alert to changes in employee behavior. They’ll be taught to pay more attention to symptoms signalling potentially dangerous behavior and to be more aware of the personal lives of their subordinates. According to Davis, “If you know your employee is going through a divorce, is getting married, has lost a child, is going to school and working nights–anything inherently likely to increase stress in their lives–talk to them.”

If an officer is under too much stress, their peers can tell. Davis advises officers to notice major changes in another officer’s behavior. Is the officer beginning to show up late for work? Are there arguments with fellow officers? Is the officer too abrupt in dealing with citizens?

If so, get involved. Let them know you’ve noticed their behavior. Lend a willing ear, but be willing to speak. Your reputation and ability to do your job depend upon the professional behavior of all police officers, so go on record as being intolerant of improper police behavior. The officer you’re trying to reach will know it’s in his or her best interest to seek professional help. In most departments help is available through psychological services. If the service isn’t available, encourage the officer to see his or her supervisor about their options.”

Law enforcement consultant Frank Bucheit has his own ideas about training needs. He believes the “officer safety” emphasis contributes to an “us vs. them” mentality, promoting the idea that cops are somehow set apart from the rest of humanity. Bucheit says there should be renewed emphasis on communication skills that teach officers to have fewer encounters ending with force.

When force is necessary, Bucheit advocates teaching officers to know the proper level of force necessary, “accurately, 100 percent of the time.” That equates to significantly elevated skill levels and the ability to use proper judgment in stressful situations. “We have to teach that, through proper use of tactics, officers can avoid unnecessary confrontations. The best cop work seldom, if ever, involves the use of force. Cops need to be masters of their environment. They should use their senses to gain control of all circumstances.”

When Chernobyl happened, the Soviets finally started paying attention to the inherent dangers of nuclear power. The nuclear industry as a whole set efforts in motion to prevent future catastrophes and communicated those measures directly to the public.

Nowicki says that if American cop work is ever going to revert to a normal state, “Police officers will need to be proud, but address the problems.” That means accepting closer public scrutiny and aggressively developing training programs that include strict compliance procedures. Maybe the King incident was an abberration, but that doesn’t mean its legacy can be ignored.


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