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An assumption of brutality

You have to wonder, watching the videotape of four police officers beating Rodney King for an audience of their peers, how the injuries would have later been explained.

Would King's broken leg, smashed teeth and fractured skull have been put down to a slip-and-fall in a holding pen, a fracas with other prisoners or an unsuccessful attempt to flail his way out of the back seat of the patrol car? No matter. An amateur cameraman captured in grainy detail the kicks and the nightstick blows. Defense lawyers for the cops, whose trial began last week in Los Angeles, say that they will prove that what happened immediately before the camera opened its unforgiving eye justified the beating.

From what I've seen, this would be possible only if Rodney King had been 10 Rodney Kings, each armed with an Uzi.

Police officers in America today have two enormous problems. The first is that they face a level of violent crime so overwhelming, so terrifying, so dangerous that in some city precincts it would not be surprising if adrenaline had permanently supplanted the blood in their veins.

But the second is that there is widespread belief that the police response to that crisis has been not better training or new techniques, but an unparalleled use of that oldest of all maneuvers _ brute force.

A poll taken last year showed that nearly 60 percent of those surveyed believed police brutality was common in most or some communities. It also showed that 53 percent felt police were more likely to use force with black or Hispanic suspects.

Several years ago a man named Larry Davis was acquitted of attempted murder. Wanted for the executions of not one but four rival drug dealers, Davis shot six police officers in a showdown in a Bronx tenement. But a jury bought the loony defense that he was a kind of wrong-side-of-the-badge Serpico who was set up for execution by corrupt cops. Faced with a serious bad guy, a bunch of ordinary people accepted that the cops might be even worse.

At the trial of Gary Spath, the Teaneck, N.J., police officer acquitted of manslaughter, the prosecutor summed up by stressing the age of the 16-year-old shooting victim, Phillip Pannell, adding: "We're talking about the streets of Teaneck. We're not talking about Fort Apache in the Bronx."

He seemed never to have considered that Fort Apache is just over the bridge from New Jersey or that 16-year-olds are criminals as well as kids in many communities.

Officer Steven McDonald was wheeled into the trial one day and reminded everyone of some of those things. McDonald last walked in 1986, when a 15-year-old shot him in the neck in Central Park.

Just as Pannell's family stood for the victim, for a life truncated, so McDonald in his wheelchair embodied Spath's defense _ that he had a split second to decide whether he was in danger.

That split second is what police officers talk about all the time, the moment before the perp pulls a gun, the moment before you decide whether to fire yours, the moment in which mistakes are made, the moment no one but a cop understands. The problem is that many of us now believe the split second is tainted.

A white police officer charged with shooting a black man is supposed to walk into the courtroom with the presumption of innocence. Now he also carries the presumption of prejudice. Only the police can change that, by policing themselves as well.

The lawyer for one of the Los Angeles cops said of the Rodney King incident, "What happened out there was what these guys are taught, trained and expected to do by the LAPD."

The most important thing about Steven McDonald is not his insensate body. It is his extraordinary soul. McDonald, a third-generation police officer, has reached out to his assailant, spoken with him, his mother, his grandmother. "I don't want to see him end up becoming a career felony criminal," he says.

It is too much to hope that all cops will be like that, too much to hope that they all will bring compassion to a job that is tough, often terrifying, sometimes fatal.

But somewhere between extraordinary compassion and routine brutality there must be some reasonable middle ground of fairness. You watch Rodney King get beaten up over and over again on the evening news, and you have to wonder: Who are the good guys?

New York Times News Service