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Public Attention Returns to Police Brutality As Rodney King Trial Begins in California

ELEVEN months after the videotaped beating of a black motorist that triggered a nationwide soul-searching over police brutality, four Los Angeles officers went on trial this week in a case that will be among the most watched in California history.

The trial revives emotional questions about police conduct and attitudes toward minorities in the nation's most ethnically diverse city.

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It comes at a time when the pace and degree of reform in the Los Angeles Police Department, once celebrated as the epitome of the modern urban law-enforcement agency, continues to be hotly debated almost a year after the March 3 beating.

Many of these differences will come to a head in June, when voters will decide a series of ballot amendments that would dramatically change police accountability and redefine some of the relationships of L.A.'s most powerful agencies.

Already, groups on both sides of that debate - including in one camp the city's scrappy and still-reigning police chief, Daryl Gates, and in the other camp the reformer Warren Christopher, head of a panel that investigated police brutality - are preparing for a fierce fight.

"The big issue in reforming the legal structure of the police is going to be the election," says Jack Katz, a sociologist at the University of California at Los Angeles who has studied police.

The trial also comes at a time when police leadership and community relations are sensitive issues in cities across the country. Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn has been urged to replace Police Commissioner Francis Roache, a boyhood chum, over questions of mismanagement.

In Long Beach, Calif., Police Chief Lawrence Binkley was recently fired after conflicts with his leadership and a review of his job performance.

In Los Angeles, an independent probe is studying allegations of widespread use of excessive force in the sheriff's department.

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Jury selection in the Rodney King trial began yesterday in the Ventura County community of Simi Valley, just north of here, where the case was moved after a court ruled it would be impossible to find an impartial panel in Los Angeles. Opening arguments begin in early March.

Attorneys for the four police charged - Sgt. Stacey Koon and officers Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno, and Laurence Powell - will argue that their clients used managed force in subduing Mr. King on that cool night in March, in accord with department policy. They contend that before the video camera was switched on by a man in a nearby apartment, King, who had been stopped for speeding, came at officers in a threatening manner and acted so bizarre that they thought he was under the influence of drugs.

Prosecutor Terry White, for his part, is expected to rely heavily on the tape, which recorded the officers kicking and clubbing King as he writhed on the ground. He is confident of securing convictions on felony assault.

King is expected to testify. His attorney says the unemployed construction worker still receives therapy for ailments suffered in the beating.

While conviction was once considered highly likely on the strength of the tape, some outside lawyers are now not so sure. They note, for one thing, that juries are often reluctant to convict police acting in the line of duty.

The trial is being closely monitored by members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other minority and police watchdog groups. They worry the largely white, politically conservative Simi Valley will produce a jury sympathetic to the defense.

However the verdict comes out, though, it is likely to provoke impassioned responses. "The outcome is going to set the tone for law enforcement in many ways," says John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League.

"In effect, it will determine whether police officers are able to roam around, misuse the law, and abuse citizens - especially African-American males."

Differences persist over whether Los Angeles needs a new kind of cop. In its report last July, the Christopher Commission, which reviewed the agency's activities in the wake of the King beating, found evidence of racism, use of excessive force, and problems with police-community relations.

In a measured six-month update, the blue-ribbon panel said progress had been made in reforming the agency but cautioned that structural changes remain to be carried out. It lauded the department's rooting out officers with histories of using excessive force and the move toward community-based policing.

It noted, however, that fundamental changes in values will come about only by making leadership of the department more accountable and suggested that future reforms depend on the chief stepping down soon. Chief Gates told the City Council last summer he would retire in April but now says he will stay on until the June 2 election, when some of the biggest reforms, which he opposes, will be voted on.

Reform measures include limiting the tenure of police chiefs to two five-year terms and giving more control of the department to the civilian Police Commission, City Council, and mayor. Gates argues the reforms would politicize the department.

Both sides are girding for a pitched battle.

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