A journalist with more than forty years experience, Lou Cannon has been a correspondent forThe Washington Post since 1972, and he is the author of six earlier books, including three sympathetic biographies of former president Ronald Reagan. Cannon was the Post’s Los Angeles bureau chief from 1991 to 1993, and he personally observed portions of the riots and attended many of the trials described in Official Negligence. In addition, his impressive research includes interviews with most of the significant participants. It seems unlikely that any future author will match his exhaustive knowledge and understanding of the subject matter.
As the title suggests, Cannon’s account emphasizes how the mistakes and bad judgments of public officials had tragic results. The policies of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) increased the probability of police violence against noncooperative suspects by failing to require adequate training for officers and by insisting that they use bone-breaking metal batons rather than less lethal alternatives. Mayor Tom Bradley and Police Chief Daryl Gates opposed the establishment of reforms such as community policing, and they neglected to make adequate preparations for the riots, despite warning signals. Judges were responsibile for unwise decisions more often than were juries. Politicians and prosecutors sought scapegoats to appease public anger, even at the expense of fairness. Cannon is also critical of broadcasters and journalists who rushed to judgment and issued one-sided reports.
Cannon’s fascinating book provides a combination of detailed narrative and perceptive interpretation. Biographical sketches of all significant individuals involved provide the reader with information and insight into personalities and motivations. As background for the dramatic events, Cannon presents a fascinating description of Los Angeles—its social and economic problems, its changing ethnic makeup, its political institutions, and its police department. One of the important elements of the story is the city government’s funding problem, which had been exacerbated by passage of California’s Proposition 13, which limited revenue generated by taxation. As a result, the LAPD did not have the equipment it needed, and the department was understaffed and poorly trained.
Race relations, especially the long-term animosity between the police and the African American community, are at the center of everything that happens in Official Negligence. A combination of discrimination, poverty, and unstable families had produced a culture of alienation among many African Americans in central-city neighborhoods such as Watts and South Central Los Angeles. Consequently, African Americans were more likely than members of other ethnic groups to have experienced conflict with the police, so that young African Americans tended to look upon the LAPD as an occupation force. Despite advances in civil rights, conditions had not improved much since 1965, when the arrest of a black motorist in Watts had led to a six-day riot that caused thirty-four deaths.
Given the historical background, it is not surprising that African Americans were predisposed to interpret the videotaped beating of Rodney King as an unambiguous example of racism within the LAPD. Cannon convincingly argues, however, that the incident was more complex than it appeared in the ninety-second film clip. Driving while badly intoxicated, King, a paroled convict, had fled the police because of the terms of his parole. Finally stopped after a 7.8-mile chase at speeds up to 115 miles per hour, he then refused to follow the instructions of the officers, although his two companions were peacefully taken into custody. King easily threw off four officers who had tried to subdue him in a “swarm,” and two 50,000-volt jolts from a Taser stun gun did not bring him down. Because he was resisting arrest, the officers correctly assumed that he was an ex-convict. Because of his strength, they assumed he was “buffed-out” from lifting weights in prison. Because of his unnatural tolerance for pain, they had reasonable grounds to fear that he probably was under the influence of the drug phencyclidine (PCP). The officers were terrified by the possibility that the suspect might be able to seize a gun.
After five minutes had transpired, a nearby observer began videotaping the confrontation just as King charged at Officer Laurence Powell, and Powell probably hit him accidentally in the face as a means of self-defense. Apparently this legal blow did more damage to King than the rest of the blows combined. King’s charge, though, was never shown on television, giving viewers the impression that King was a helpless victim. According to Cannon, the deletion of the first portion of the video was probably prompted by its poor quality rather than by the bias of television editors.
Although recognizing that the beating of King was both inept and...
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