Archive for June, 2012

In the Rodney King Case, Police Have Taken a Beating,Too.

June 2, 2012

In cleaning out my files recently, I found a couple previously published articles on the Rodney King incident. What follows is an updated version of my opinion piece that appeared in the April, 1991 edition of the San Diego Union-Tribune under the headline, “In the Rodney King Case, Police Have Taken a Beating, Too” with input from my writing partner, Linda A. Shubeck.

The physical damage the police inflicted on Rodney King most likely healed long ago. Healing the damage to relations between cops and the public they serve took a lot longer and is still on the mend.

Many things have changed since 1991, when a bystander serendipitously armed with a camera videotaped Rodney King’s drubbing. Most police cars now carry video cameras and some officers wear head cameras and microphones. Cell phone communications and their ever present cameras add to the levels of public scrutiny.

However, two things remain immutable; the physical and mental reactions of cops who chase scofflaws at speeds exceeding a hundred-miles-per-hour, and the fact that it’s the offenders, not the cops who start police pursuits.

Cops get angry when lives are needlessly jeopardized by the stupid actions of thoughtless people. This anger is magnified by the adrenaline rushing through their bodies as they careen through the streets and along the freeways of urban areas, wondering all the while if the risk is worth the potential cost.

The rush of adrenaline dilates their air passages and pushes elevated levels of oxygen into their lungs. Blood vessels constrict throughout their bodies, redirecting the blood toward their hearts, lungs, and major muscle groups. Their body’s systems react to the adrenaline and other hormones within seconds, giving the officers a nearly instant physical boost of strength as their respiration and awareness of immediate surroundings heighten and brain chemicals make them slightly dizzy.

That’s a partial description of the “fight or flight syndrome” that affects an officer’s physiological state during a pursuit and informs their actions during the arrest. Exercising their best judgment under those circumstances is certainly not easy.

We don’t know what happened between the time when King finally yielded to the police sirens and the videotape rolled. Today we probably would have the entire incident on video. However, we do know that King was shot with a Taser, an apparatus that propels two barbs attached to the ends of wires and delivers 50,000 volts of electrical current, immobilizing almost everyone it strikes. It didn’t immobilize Rodney King. Even with several officers present, the fact that King wasn’t subdued created fear. Add physiologically agitated bodies to fear and frustration and the sum is violence.

What frustration? There’s the frustration of the chase itself and there’s the frustration of policing our society. There’s too little room in our jails and prisons, limited facilities for housing violent or helpless mental health patients and more and more homeless people pepper the streets and sidewalks.  These problems get worse decade by decade.

Maintaining the balance of justice in a free society is an arduous process. We need to recognize that cops are victims of the chaos as well. They police the streets of a degenerating society on a daily basis while suffering under the diminished public support for decades since the Rodney King beating.

Oddly, 9/11 did a lot to heal the breach of trust when the country saw just who runs into a building that’s under attack when nearly everyone else runs in the opposite direction. And today, ubiquitous video cameras can continue to repair police/community relations. Recently, a Philadelphia police officer’s violent encounter with a street crook drew almost universal praise from media pundits in awe of the bravery and mental focus it took to retain his gun during the life-and-death encounter.

It does seem a little odd that today’s proliferation of video cameras can help grant the heart-felt request Rodney King made during the riots following the first trial of the officers involved in his post-chase arrest, “can we all get along?”