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L.A. Still Roiling From Motorist Beating


SIX months after the police beating of a black motorist here, Los Angeles is moving down a path of reform that leaders hope will put one of the most traumatic episodes in city history behind it.But even as it does, new concerns are surfacing over another local law enforcement agency, and some analysts complain of a city facing far deeper schisms and problems than the conduct of those who wield batons. "This is a deeply divided city," says Kevin Starr, a professor of regional and urban planning at the University of Southern California (USC). "In many ways, it is a city waiting for an eruption." In the months since the March 3 Rodney King beating was captured on videotape and played around the world, much of the intensity of emotion surrounding the incident has died down. Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates, the source of so much acrimony and accolade immediately following the event, has decided to retire in April. The internecine warfare between politicians and government institutions has subsided. A special blue-ribbon panel on police brutality has issued its blueprint on what the city should do. That does not mean there isn't still room for plenty of politicking and outrage. The next few months will determine just how the ideas for reform of the police department are carried out. A major step toward that goal was taken last week when the City Council passed a series of landmark changes governing the function and oversight of the 8,300-member force. It decided to limit the tenure of the chief to two five-year terms, drop the job from civil service protections (under the current system it is difficult to remove a chief), and give the mayor and City Council final say over the selection of chiefs. It also moved to strengthen the Police Commission, a group that oversees the department, by approving additional staffing. "The reforms going through are quite fundamental," says Jack Katz, a sociologist at the University of California at Los Angeles. "The police chief won't be induced to develop divisive lines of rhetoric in the community."

The Christopher reforms For the most part, the reforms adhered to recommendations made by the Christopher Commission, the panel headed by former diplomat Warren Christopher that looked into police misconduct and found evidence of racial bias and brutality by some members of the force. That is considered significant. Leading up to its vote, the council had been lobbied by various factions - including by a citizens' watchdog group set up to see that the blue-ribbon panel's proposals were enacted. One departure the council did make was to maintain ultimate control over the Police Commission and some aspects of the department. Even so, Mr. Christopher, whose low-key style in heading the police probe has drawn widespread praise, said that, while he would rather have seen more power going to the Police Commission, he thought the general direction of reform was good. Others, though, see too much power tilting to the council. "What you really get with legislative oversight of the police is a lot of micromanagement driven by neighborhood concerns," says Steven Erie, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego who is writing a book on Los Angeles government. More remains to be done. Several of the council's proposals require voter approval. Other recommendations won't be taken up until later. Some reforms, such as instituting more "community policing," will depend in part on the next chief. "We have more distance to travel," says Dr. John Slaughter, president of Occidental College, who served on the Christopher Commission. Even as these efforts were going on, new complaints were rising from neighborhoods about another law enforcement agency, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. In the past month, the agency has been accused of four unnecessary or questionable shootings. Latino and other groups are calling for an independent probe similar to the Christopher Commission. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into three of the incidents. More than anything, the anger shows the raw sensitivities that remain in neighborhoods. "Police-community relationships have not calmed down," says H. Eric Schockman, a political scientist at USC.

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Urban boiling point Behind the turmoil, many analysts see a city under increasing social and economic pressure. They complain of a growing mistrust between racial and ethnic groups, a widening gap between rich and poor, and a political structure that is too fragmented to act for the common good. To a certain extent, these woes could apply to almost any American city. Los Angeles, however, does face some unusual problems. Not the least is trying to provide for such a sprawling metropolis: While the city has 3.5 million people, the five-county metropolitan area harbors 14 million people spread over an area nearly the size of Massachusetts. Three million of them arrived in the last decade, many from foreign lands. More than 80 languages are spoken in Los Angeles schools. Tensions inevitably arise in this ethnic "tossed salad": Mayor Tom Bradley recently convened a mini-summit to try to smooth differences between blacks and Koreans in South-Central Los Angeles. Still, UCLA's Katz cautions: "There are very serious economic and racial tensions in the city. But I think they are less disturbing than in New York or Chicago." Others worry about a shrinking middle class. Professor Starr at USC sees Los Angeles on the "cutting edge of the disjunction between rich and poor that is affecting every American city." Some, such as Dr. Schockman, urge fundamental reform of a "balkanized" political system that diffuses too much power among Council members and other agencies and does not centralize enough in the mayor's office.

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