The videotaped beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers on March 3, 1991--an event that electrified the country--dramatized the problem of police discretion. The officers involved acted out their worst impulses, obviously believing they would never be caught or punished. The fact that a sergeant was present and that the officers later discussed the incident over the police radio is the most damning evidence of their sense of immunity. 1
The incident summed up everything that the most severe critics of the police have always believed. First, it highlighted the fact that most police work is a "low-visibility" phenomenon, occurring in a setting where officers are not monitored by any external authority. When a citizen does complain it is difficult to sustain that complaint with independent evidence. Second, the investigation following the incident clearly found that the internal system of police discipline had failed. The Christopher Commission identified forty-four officers who were guilty of multiple abuses of citizens yet had never been punished for persistent misconduct. Third, the incident illustrated the point that low- income black men are the most common victims of police misconduct.
In short, not only is routine police work free of effective external scrutiny, but the internal mechanisms of accountability appear to have failed. And it is worth noting that the Los Angeles police department ( LAPD) has long enjoyed the reputation of being the most "profes-