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Opinion As Ferguson waits, some lessons from the Rodney King riots

This April 30, 1992 file photo shows looters running with stolen merchandise from a Payless Shoestore near the Crenshaw and Jefferson area of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Akili-Casundria Ramsess, file)

I wrote a post last August about how the manner and approach that police agencies employ in response to protest can have a big impact on how whether or not protesters turn violent. In short, if the police go in anticipating violence, that anticipation can become self-fulfilling. I quoted law enforcement officials in the piece who have studied or had extensive experience in handling protests. They say police commanders should condition cops to see themselves as the facilitators of a protest, not the force that’s there to contain it. They should avoid arbitrary deadlines and restrictions, and while they should be prepared in case things get out of hand, they should keep the riot squads, military equipment, and cops in Robocop gear out of view.

In my book on police militarization, I looked at the Rodney King riots, in particular how law enforcement officials’ approach to verdict in San Diego differed from the approach in Los Angeles. I think there are some lessons here, although it’s probably too late to apply them in Ferguson now. The passages below are from an earlier draft of my book, so they’ll include more context and detail than appeared in the final copy.

First, some context: Going back to the late 1980s, San Diego police officers had been involved in a number of racially-charged incidents that inflamed tensions with the city’s black community.

On April 11, the DA found “legitimate cause to question the conduct and testimony” of police officers in the case of Sagon Penn. In 1985, Penn, then a 23-year-old who had ambitions to become a police officer, was pulled over by San Diego police officers Donovan Jacobs and Thomas Riggs. Witnesses would later confirmed that Penn and Jacobs began to argue about Penn’s driver’s license. At some point, Jacobs physically confronted the 23-year-old Penn, threw him to the ground, and began beating him while spewing racial epithets. (Jacobs had been disciplined in the past for racist outbursts, though that information was initially kept from Penn’s lawyers.) Penn, a martial arts student, eventually overcame Jacobs, wrested his gun away from him, and shot the officer. He then shot Riggs, a citizien in the back of the squad car on a ride-along, and then fled in the officers’ own car. Riggs died, Jacobs and the woman in the squad car survived, but suffered permanent injuries. Two juries later acquitted acquitted Penn of murder and of attempted murder, finding that he acted in self-defense.
The DA issued another report, this time calling the death of 25-year-old Chip Doonan “a needless tragedy.” Before his death, Doonan had complained to friends that several San Diego police officers had been harassing him, including spying on him while off duty, and twice arresting him on drug charges that were later dropped due to lack of evidence. One officer in particular, Richard Draper, had made both arrests, and had also pulled Doonan over three times—all within a few months.
In January 1988, police had their fatal confrontation with Doonan, this time as he was moving his belongings into the garage of a friend, who had invited Doonan to live with him. Two officers chased Doonan around to the back of the garage, then shot him dead. The officers said they killed him because Doonan refused to obey an order to drop the weapon he was carrying, which turned out to be a BB gun. But one resident of the house who said he was eight feet away at the time Doonan was shot said he never heard police say anything, much less identify themselves. Four months later, Draper was dismissed from the department after pistol-whipping a college student while off duty. Draper claimed the student had cut him off on the interstate, so he tailgated the student’s truck. When the student tried to relent and let Draper pass, he says Draper continued the aggressive driving. The student eventually became frightened, and tried to get away. Draper chased him for miles at speeds over 100 mph, then finally cut him off at a red light, at which point he drew his gun, ordered the student out of his truck, beat him with his pistol, ripped off the student’s shirt, then threw him to the ground and arrested him.
Draper was hired by the San Diego Police Department in 1978 after being rejected by three other police departments. Over the course of his 10-year career he had been involved in three shootings (including one fatality), and was named in 20 citizen complaints of excessive force.

At around the same time, the department had been involved in a series of botched drug raids, mostly on black people. That included a 1987 raid that ended with police shooting and killing Tommy DuBose the father of the man they were looking for. Others in the home in the time say DuBose thought he was being robbed; he was in fact an outspoken critic of drug use, because of what he’d seen happen to his son. Longtime police officer and future chief of the Seattle Police Department Norm Stamper says the incident changed the way he looked at the drug war and police militarization. As I write in the book:

Drugs weren’t directly a factor in the Doonan or Penn confrontations. Both were incidents in which a confrontation between a citizen and police had unnecessarily escalated, with a tragic result. The same could be said about many of the incidents involving officers Garcia and Draper. And in all fairness, police officers in San Diego had good reason to be tense. During one stretch of the 1980s, the city lost 10 officers in eight years to on-the-job homicides, the highest mortality rate in the country. The aggression went both ways. And that wasn’t just in San Diego. Stamper illustrates the tension in his book Breaking Rank with two incredible quotes to open his chapter on police and race relations. The first is from a black woman, who was speaking at a San Diego community forum on police abuse:
Momma and Daddy were lucky they had girls. I had boys. My boys are eleven and nine now, and I’m scared to death for them. It’s not that I’m afraid they’re gonna get jumped into a gang, or wind up doing or dealing drugs. No sir. My big fear is that they’re gonna run into one of you people one night and they won’t be coming home. It’s like an open season on young black men in our community, like they’re walking around with targets on their backs. I have a recurring nightmare, Chief: I get this call in the middle of the night, “Come on down to the morgue, Mrs. Johnson. We got one of your boys, here. Police shot him when he tried to run.”
And from the white cop serving on a task force to improve officer safety, also in San Diego. He said this two weeks after the quote above:
It’s open season on us in The Heights, Chief. I fyou’re working the blacks you’re wearing a target, plain and simple. For me it comes down to this: kill or be killed. I got a wife and two boys. My sons need their father. I’m gonna do whatever it takes to make it home at the end of the shift.
The striking thing about the two quotes is how similar they are to the relationship between opposing soldiers in a war. The warring governments that send soldiers off to fight may well have nothing in common at all, just as, say, the leaders of civil rights organizations’ interests might diverge sharply from the interests of a mayor or police chief. But on the ground, where the casualties are, the opponents share a common humanity—they want to survive, they want to stop living and working in fear, they think often about their families.
In just the handful of examples above from San Diego, it isn’t at all difficult to see how the animosity could pick up momentum. The minority community looks at Tommy Dubose and sees cops busting into a family’s home, then gunning down an unarmed man in his own living room. They see an outspokenly anti-drug father killed in front of his family because the police, at least as they see it, had no problem punishing the father for the crimes of his son. They see that though everyone acknowledges Tommie DeBose was innocent, his innocence doesn’t matter. There are no criminal charges, no disciplinary action, not a single day of suspension. They see that two years later, the cops are wearing the same vests that the DA’s report concluded had contributed to Dubose’s death in the first place. They see vague promises to make sure nothing similar happens again, followed by more botched raids. They read about repeat police offenders like Garcia and Draper. And when these things happen, they hear police spokesmen like Gore and Berglund and Burgreen explain that yes the cops may have hit the wrong house; or yes an innocent man is dead; or yes it turns out that this particular cop had prior problems with excessive force . . . . but technically that address was correct; or you can’t blame the cop for fearing for his life even though the man was unarmed; or the cops did everything correctly except they accidentally raided the wrong address; or sure this cop history of shootings or citizen complaints well above the standard deviation, but we have to judge these incidents one at a time, on their own merits, not cumulatively.
After a while, whether intentional or not, an unmistakable message emerges: Our policies are more important than you people. When police officials appear to spend more creative energy making excuses than figuring out ways to prevent tragedies they claim were unintentional from happening again, the message to communities disproportionately effected by the policies that create this incidents is that the people in those communities are expendable.
It isn’t difficult to imagine, then, what might be going through the mind of a young black man like Sagon Penn when he’s pulled over, when the cop begins to get aggressive, lets loose with a few racial slurs, then begins to get physical. He’s thinking about every story he’s read or heard about a young black men who ended up dead after an interaction with the police.
But you can see a cop’s point of view, too. He hears about Sagon Penn and he thinks about every other young black kid who has given him lip during a traffic stop or a Terry stop. Sure, maybe he wouldn’t have gotten physical with the kid, or used the racial slurs, but he can certainly see how his colleague could get fed up with that sort of thing after a bad day, or at the end of his shift. And for that, this kid kills a cop, maims another, shoots a citizen, steals a squad car, and runs over one of the cops he just shot as he speeds away. After hearing that story, it isn’t difficult to imagine why a cop in San Diego would be more on guard, more wary, more distrustful, and quicker to reach for his gun the next time he was face to face with a young black kid in a bad neighborhood.

The really depressing thing about that passage is the events described in it occurred in 1987. There are far too many places in America where it’s just as applicable now, nearly three decades later.

The good news is that things got better in San Diego, at least for a while. And that’s because the police and the city made a concerted effort to shift to more  community-oriented policing. The policies were largely due to the effort of Norm Stamper, who by then had reason to the upper ranks of the city’s police force.

Penn’s case, along with that of Dooney and Dubose moved the city to take extraordinary efforts to move to more community-oriented policing, particularly with minority outreach. By the early 1990s, San Diego police officials and city leaders were in regular contact with civil rights and minority leaders. The city set up a hotline to report police abuse, and persuaded a local TV station to host a telethon in which viewers could call in to have on-air conversations with city leaders.

In a 1992 article, the Los Angeles Times later credited those efforts for saving San Diego from the rioting that took place in Los Angeles after the King verdict came down.

“The Sagon Penn case was the low point in the relationship between the police and the community,” said City Manager Jack McGrory. “It was San Diego’s Rodney King case. It was symbolic of the troubles within the Police Department in terms of the attitudes of our officers. We knew we had to change, to break down the walls between government and the community.”
Changes since the Penn trial include a civilian police review board, a more restrained policy on the use of deadly force, greater use of officers walking beats in poor and minority neighborhoods, and community-oriented policing, where officers are ordered to leave their squad cars, mix with residents and respond to their complaints.
Milton Silverman, Penn’s defense attorney, said the outcome of the Penn trial aided San Diego in two ways: First by showing that blacks can get justice in San Diego, and second by the police reforms it wrought. Both, he says, saved San Diego during the Los Angeles riots.
“I think it kept the city from burning down,” Silverman said.
Frank Jordan, president of the San Diego chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, agrees. “We’ve already had our Rodney King,” he said. “Without Sagon Penn, or if he hadn’t been able to get justice, then things could have been very explosive in San Diego (after the King trial verdict).”
Ellis, once a critic of the Police Department, also sees a significant shift. “Some things have been going on for at least the last four years to establish a new dialogue between law enforcement, City Hall and the community,” he said.

After the verdict, those goodwill gestures and the relationships they built paid off.

City and police officials in San Diego were quick to denounce the acquittal of the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King, but more importantly, they had direct lines to the city’s minority communities when the verdict was announced. They could build a strategy around empathy, not antagonism. Consequently, city officials knew that angry people would want to vent. So rather than suppress demonstrations, they allowed them—nearly encouraged them.
They then sent police officers out into city’s minority neighborhoods. City officials later acknowledged that this was to prevent the protests from getting out of hand and turning violent. But because of the city’s embrace of true community, dispatching cops to their beat en masse looked more like a show of support than a show of force. The cops knew the neighborhoods they were sent out to keep calm, and not just the street grids and landmarks, but the pastors, the school principals, and the community leaders. One local activist told the Times, “One of the reasons we survived is that people from the mayor to the City Council to the arts organizations got out into the streets immediately and sided with the people, not against them.”
. . . Interestingly, since the late 1980s, San Diego has also boasted one of the lowest crime rates in the country. It consistently ranks among the five safest big cities in America. Crime in the city has been falling for the last two decades, just as it has in the rest of the country,. But San Diego’s crime rate peaked in 1989, just as the new policies were taking hold in the city. The national crime rate peaked in 1991.

Stamper would go on to make national headlines as the man in charge during the 1999 WTO riots and subsequent police crackdown. Today, Stamper says his decision to use that sort of force on the WTO protesters — which stands in contrast to nearly everything else he did in law enforcement — was the biggest mistake of his career.

As for San Diego, the city’s police department has recently been embroiled in some scandal and questionable use of force incidents. But it’s still consistently one of the safest big cities in the country.