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JILT 1997 (3) - Philip Leith

Robert Garcia's

Riots and Rebellion: Civil Rights, Police Reform, and the Rodney King Beating

CD-ROM disk.

Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction, Chicago, 1997 $39.95 (plus tax).

Reviewed by
Philip Leith
Queens University Belfast

1. The Product
2. The Thesis
3. Law, Lawyers and Change
4. Conclusions

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This is an IT Review published on 31 October 1997.

Citation: Leith P, 'Robert Garcia's Riots and Rebellion: Civil Rights, Police Reform and the Rodney King Beating', IT Review, 1997 (3) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <>

1. The Product

Garcia's CD-ROM product has been long awaited, its development having been described by Garcia in several papers over the past few years [1] . The CD-ROM contains a large bulk of text and also several pieces of video footage which relate to violent events prior to and during the Los Angeles riots of 1991. The product is, as evidenced by the publisher CALI (which is funded by its US law school members to provide computer based law school materials), primarily directed towards law schools. However, the breadth of materials incorporated will make it of interest to many outside the traditional law school.

The main contents are reports prepared after the riots, investigations of LA gangs, extracts from newspapers, some academic articles and court documentation. Some of the materials which were earlier promised (for example, excerpts from a Broadway play about the riots) have not been included. The videos included are those which show Rodney King being beaten, Latasha Harlins being shot in a Korean run grocery shop (both episodes raising the temperature of inner city LA prior to the rioting) and also several violent episodes caught by camera during the riots themselves. The CD-ROM runs under Folio Views (not provided with the CD-ROM), which - if not the most up-to-date delivery mechanism - is widely available, and is not too frustrating to the user. The user can move between the various parts of text, can search with Boolean techniques, and can highlight parts of the text for later analysis. Overall, the contents are well laid out and easily accessible by either chapter or section heading or through the time-line at the beginning of the text: the delivery software has not impeded Garcia's aim to produce an `electronic textbook' which is of much value.

Why is this such a valuable product? The major reason is that it is a means to help overcome the `appellatitis' of the law school - the concentration upon only appeal court cases. Here, by having a means of looking back to the context in which court cases happen and also the trial court itself, students can gain a much wider appreciation of the legal system in operation. This approach is `law in context' in a manner which is near impossible in the printed world: how else could all students in a class have access to so much information at once given the high costs of printed texts. The added `actuality' which comes from included video information gives the rest of the text a reality which students must find enthusing.

The disk containing Riots and Rebellions is only half-full, and we might therefore consider what other materials it would have been useful to have included. My own wish would have been for the transcripts of the trials and the later oral appellate proceedings. Researchers would certainly have a great interest in having this material readily to hand, particularly those who are interested in the trial court. It may be that the stenographic system is responsible for this lack of materials: court stenographers are privately employed by the parties involved in a case. However, the product which the stenographers produce (that is, the public record of the case) is deemed to be their private property and they make high financial demands on those who wish copies. This means that researchers are frequently unable to access a public record due to high cost, or may be unable to agree reproduction fees to use the transcript in a product such as this. The stenographic company who undertook transcription of O.J.Simpson's criminal trial would certainly have made a substantial income from transcript sales, for the same effort as a more mundane proceedings. This may be satisfactory to the stenographic service, but hardly to the notion of the public's right of access to the legal system.

Other materials which would have been welcome would have been some maps of the LA area and also, inclusion of the tables which have been omitted from the texts on the disk.

2. The Thesis

One potential problem in an electronic textbook of this sort is that the sheer quantity of materials which is included obscures any thesis which the author (or compiler) proposes. This is certainly not the case with Riots and Rebellion: the clear thrust of the product is that police malpractice lies at the heart of the cause of the rioting, and that the Latino-Chicano population of Los Angeles were particularly subject to that malpractice in the form of beatings, harassment and racially motivated policing. Further, that the racial tensions in LA are not simply those of white against black. As Garcia has written elsewhere:

`Many people were surprised to learn that during the riots and rebellion in Los Angeles, 51% of the people arrested were Latinos. In contrast, only 38% were African Americans, 9% were Anglos, and 2% were Asian Americans or "other." Why are people surprised that the majority of the people arrested were Latinos? Perhaps people expected that only African Americans would be outraged by the verdicts.' [2]

Chicanos in the US have for long complained that race relations are seen in terms of only two colours - black and white - but that in fact, the problems of race are more complicated. Certainly in LA, with migration from Mexico and further south, the Chicano and Latino percentage of the population is increasing. Unfortunately, the evidence also suggests that this section of the population are stuck in low wage positions or in unemployment, and are both major recipients of crime and major initiators of crime [3] .

The tensions between racial groups are clearly demonstrated by the materials Garcia has gathered - particularly between Korean immigrants (who have been able to integrate more easily) and African American and Chicano-Latino groups. The shooting dead of Harlins (an African American) by a Korean grocer, when she was accused of attempting to steal an item costing less than $2, did much to raise the tension in the period prior to the riots. And during the rioting, Korean businesses were more likely to be attacked.

The materials do not provide any simplistic answers to the race question, but certainly for the UK user of this textbook, much information is made easily available to help understand the complex issues of race. Having said that, cultural identity is a major concern in the US at present in a variety of areas including the academic, but this is not demonstrated in the collection. Perhaps the inclusion of some articles on this topic might have been particularly helpful to the reader outwith the US.

On the subject of police malpractice, however, the evidence is much easier to interpret. The investigation of police behaviour prior to the riots clearly brought forward evidence of attitudes of hostility from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) towards the inhabitants of certain areas of LA, whether or not they had been involved in criminal activities. In fact, the police database containing gang member details showed that the police believed a very high proportion of the Latino/Chicano and, particularly, African American populations were involved in street gangs. A report prepared by the District Attorney in 1992 (and included on the disk) suggested:

`Some of the most troubling data to emerge from this study concern the extraordinary percentage of young Black males who show up in gang databases. The police have identified almost half of all Black men in Los Angeles County between the ages of 21 and 24 as gang members. That number is so far out of line with other ethnic groups that a careful, professional examination is needed to determine whether police procedures may be systematically over-identifying Black youths as gang members.'

In part, of course, there are reasons for this high social construction of gang membership: better funds for the police, and the political capital to be made out of street gangs at election time.

The Christopher Commission Report (an independent commission on the Los Angeles police department) is included in Garcia's textbook. It suggested:

`The Commission found that there is a significant number of officers in the LAPD who repetitively use excessive force against the public and persistently ignore the written guidelines of the Department regarding force. This finding is documented and confirmed, from several perspectives, by the detailed analyses of documents and statistics performed by the Commission. Our computerized study of the complaints filed in recent years shows a strong concentration of allegations against a problem group of officers. A comparable study of the use of force reports reveals a similar concentration. Graphic confirmation of improper attitudes and practices is provided by the brazen and extensive references to beatings and other excessive uses of force in the MDTs [4] .

The Commission also found that the problem of excessive force is aggravated by racism and bias, again strikingly revealed in the MDTs. The failure to control these officers is a management issue that is at the heart of the problem. The documents and data that we have analyzed have all been available to the Department; indeed, most of this information came from that source. The LAPD's failure to analyze and act upon these revealing data evidences a significant breakdown in the management and leadership of the Department. The Police Commission, lacking investigators or other resources, failed in its duty to monitor the Department in this sensitive use of force area. The Department not only failed to deal with the problem group of officers but it often rewarded them with positive evaluations and promotions.'

Police malpractice is evident throughout the contents of the disk, but also demonstrated are the problems caused when the police withdrew from areas where rioting was most severe. The TV video (shot from a helicopter) of the Lopez beating shows that the police had not blocked off these areas from traffic, allowing Lopez's truck to enter an area where they themselves were not prepared to provide coverage.

The disk contains court materials relating to the attempts by a consortium of plaintiffs to use court action to enforce the LAPD's procedural rules, and also case law detailing the law in this regard.

3. Law, Lawyers and Social Change

The disk is not simply of use as a descriptive body of materials about the LA riots and the LAPD. We have had serious riots in the UK, too, and rioting is almost a social activity for bored youth in certain parts of Northern Ireland. Usually, these riots are seen (except in NI's case) to be related to issues of poverty and lack of opportunity within ethnic groups, and a feeling of police persecution - the same kind of factors which were seen in the causes of the LA riots. There must be some connection between what we can learn from LA and what we can learn from the UK experience - if not about removing poverty, at least about police malpractice and the limits to the lawyer's ability to affect this malpractice.

The materials show quite clearly that legislative control of the police force was in place, yet that individual policemen were acting illegally both in consort with other police officers and with a distinct racial bias. The materials also show how difficult it was to act as a lawyer (or to get legal representation) to halt police harassment and brutality. Why was the law enforcement agency allowed to operate in contravention of the law? Is producing law a particularly effective way to ensure minority rights anyway?

This use of law for the defence of minorities is of interest. The liberal movement in the 1960s and the 1970s which believed that law could change society for the better has come under attack. Opponents of this view point out that despite all the developments in rights for the non-white in the US, the position of minorities is generally identical to thirty years ago: economically and socially disadvantaged. These opponents suggest that law has not materially affected society [5] and that other techniques must be found. In law schools however, liberalism continues to hold sway, perhaps in part because minorities have found it difficult to enter. With the recent decision of the Regents of the University of California to end affirmative action in student enrolment, the situation looks to be worsening.

For the lawyer from the minority grouping, there are career problems to be considered: working in the poorer areas of LA will not be particularly remunerative, and a conscious decision must be made by the lawyer to forego potential high earnings for a more politically dedicated career. Given the importance of the dollar in the US mentality this is not easy - Moss (in a study in 1981) certainly found that UCLA students of the 1970s were morally aware of their social responsibilities, but more keen on high earnings than those of the 1960s [6] . It is difficult to believe that the 1980s and 1990s have lessened that desire for monetary success, though Gerald Lpez, in Rebellious Lawyering: one Chicano's vision of progressive law practice [7], suggests one possible path for some.

One effect of the disk is certainly to reduce one's belief in the liberal legal strategy. The court cases seem almost redundant in the face of the larger problem of poverty; a problem which has not reduced since the period of the riots. California is a wealthy State which competes favourably in economic terms with most countries, yet legislation has been effected to remove welfare and health rights from illegal immigrants, and health care for the poor is generally inadequate. The civil rights movements seems to have met an immovable wall: no-one wants to pay for the poor, and the concept of redistribution of wealth is political suicide.

4. Conclusions

There are minor aspects of Garcia's work which one might object to, but these are primarily of insufficient materials, rather than in the choice of the materials he has included. (The rather dated Folio Views vehicle is another.) This criticism of sufficiency, of course, is a criticism of every database - users always want (and can never get) everything in one place. Garcia has done well to get this project so far: everyone involved in legal education is well aware of the difficulties of accessing information when everyone is claiming a slice of the copyright pie. This is the first project of its kind, demonstrating the capacity for the computer to aid socio-legal understanding, and should certainly be seen as a success in these terms. Hopefully this will be the first of many such computer-based socio-legal intrusions into the law school curriculum.

[1] For example, Garcia, R., 1995, `Electronic Casebook on Civil Rights, Police Reform and Rebuilding Los Angeles', Proceedings of 10th BILETA Conference, Glasgow.

[2] Garcia, R. 1994, "Latinos and Criminal Justice", in Chicano-Latino Law Review, Vol. 14, No 6.

[3] Particularly in terms of gang composition.

[4] These refer to transcripts of communications between patrol vehicles etc.

[5] The death penalty, for example, is biased in terms of colour for a number of reasons.

[6] Moss, B.H., 1981, "Political Values and Career Aspirations of UCLA law students: the 70's generation", in Chicano Law Review, Vol. 5, No 1.

[7] Westview Press, Boulder & Oxford, 1993.

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