King litigation may spur healing or unrest

King litigation may spur healing or unrest – Rodney King’s civil lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department

Solomon J. Herbert

Lawyers are awaiting the settlement of an $83 million civil lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) filed on behalf of black motorist Rodney G. King. At press time, insiders said that after several weeks of negotiations, an out-of-court settlement of $8 million to $15 million was expected to be approved by the full Los Angeles City Council. But negotiations broke off on July 9, when King’s lawyer Steven Lerman publically announced that they will settle the matter in court.

Sources say, the city council’s rejection of a final offer of $6 million to settle the civil suit caused the break in negotiations. But no matter what the cause, the after effects of taking such an emotionally explosive case to trial could be devastating.

The outcome of this suit and the outcome of several upcoming related cases will go a long way in creating an atmosphere of healing in the wake of King’s beating at the hands of four white police officers and the rioting that followed the officers’ acquittal.

Because of a judge’s gag order, neither King’s lawyers nor members of the council would comment on the civil suit. Still, there is clearly cause for concern. City officials are gearing up for the retrial of one of the officers charged in King’s beating and anxiously awaiting the outcome of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into possible civil rights violations. Leaders of Los Angeles’ African-American community fear that more acquittals could spawn a new round of violence, especially if the problems that caused the initial unrest are not addressed.

King was brutally beaten by four white LAPD officers on March 3, 1991, after leading police on a high-speed chase. The incident became front-page news when a home video of the beating surfaced and was televised nationally.

Sergeant Stacey C. Koon and officers Laurence M. Powell, Theodore J. Briseno and Timothy E. Wind of the LAPD were subsequently charged with 11 offenses in the King beating. The changes included assault with a deadly weapon, excessive use of force under color of authority, filing a false report and acting as an accessory after the fact. The racially charged trial was shifted out of Los Angeles County to Simi Valley, Calif. On April 29, a jury of 10 whites, one Hispanic and one Asian acquitted the officers of 10 of 11 charges. The jury deadlocked on the charge of excessive use of force against officer Powell.

The “not guilty” verdicts, viewed by many as racist, sparked the most violent and destructive wave of civil unrest in U.S. history. Los Angeles erupted into five days of rioting and looting, which cost more than $1 billion in damages and left 58 people dead. Rioting and looting spread to other cities, including San Francisco, Las Vegas and Atlanta.

Since the trial, a number of legal developments have occurred. Officer Powell still faces one count of excessive force. A trial date on that count has been set for October 19.

The national public outcry following the jury’s verdict led to the current federal investigation by the U.S. Justice Department. Associate Attorney General Wayne Budd, who is black, has been appointed by President George Bush to head a grand jury probe to determine if King’s civil rights were violated. The findings from this probe will determine if the four officers will be charged with civil rights violations.

At press time, the Justice Department would not discuss the case. Amy Casner, a Justice Department civil rights specialist, would only say that “the investigation is ongoing.”

John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League, says “Depending on how [the federal suit] plays out, another storm of outrage and rebellion could be set off. Its our sincere hope that the Justice Department and the government won’t play around with this case, and the grand jury will do what the other jury was not able to do.”

Within the LAPD, disciplinary hearings will soon commence. Immediately after the beating, officer Wind, who was on probation at the time of the beating, was fired outright. The other three officers have been suspended without pay, pending resolution of the Internal Board of Rights hearing. Koon, Briseno and six other police officers who witnessed the beating, but did nothing to stop it, will face a variety of misconduct charges, which can result in punishment ranging from a reprimand to dismissal.

Another case, involving the beating of white truck driver Reginald Denny, also has the community on edge: Four black men have been arrested and several others are still sought in connection with the attack, which took place the first day of the riot. At press time, no trial date was set.

Rev. Cecil L. Murray, pastor of First AME Church in Los Angeles, says that justice in the courts is only part of the solution. “If there are no jobs; if ownership of the land in our communities is by aliens; if we cannot get redlining and high insurance rates removed; if we cannot get small business loans to enable mom-and-pop stores to survive and grow … we have another flash point. There’s no doubt about it, the ingredients are still there,” he says.

COPYRIGHT 1992 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.

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