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Verdict and Violence

THE Rodney King beating incident in Los Angeles forced a thorough reexamination of law-enforcement practices in that city. A special commission found strong evidence of brutality and racism in the police department and recommended extensive reform measures. The city's controversial chief of police, Daryl Gates, was finally forced to leave. Public officials from President Bush on down proclaimed the incident "sickening."

Yet a jury found those who administered the beating innocent - despite the 80-second videotape which had convinced most Americans that such apparent viciousness by police officers was indefensible.

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So does last Wednesday's verdict indict the jury system? No. Juries can make mistakes, but they remain a bulwark against arbitrary justice.

Does the verdict in the King case show that white, or mostly white, juries won't deliver justice in a case involving a black? The trial was moved out of Los Angeles into a community, Simi Valley, that's overwhelmingly white. No black served on the jury.

Most white Americans are insulated from the inner-city, war-zone mentality that can result in extreme uses of force against people presumed because of their race to be "dangerous." The jury accepted the defense arguments that Mr. King, who didn't immediately submit to arrest, and not the officers surrounding him was responsible for the brutal beating.

A federal civil rights inquiry, already launched, could result in a new trial. But the urgent need now is a tempering of the violent emotions that erupted in the wake of the verdict.

Rodney King himself delivered a moving call for reconciliation and an end to the rioting and killing. President Bush's statement was rightly tough on the rioters in Los Angeles, whose actions quickly went beyond legitimate protest to wanton looting and vandalism. His reported acknowledgement of "root causes" for the violence conveyed a hint, at least, that the administration might turn its attention to problems in urban America.

The process of mending Los Angeles's scars and restoring respect for legitimate authority will be difficult. The new police chief, Willie Williams, had a solid record as police commissioner of Philadelphia. He faces a supreme test of his community-policing ideas when he takes office in July.

Race relations and urban disintegration have been thrust again onto the nation's agenda. Political leaders must disown campaign tactics that play on racial stereotypes and formulate ideas for addressing the economic and social ills that underlie the explosions of the past few days.

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