From the moment television first broadcast the gruesome videotape of Los Angeles policemen clubbing and kicking Rodney King, the backlash began.
Utahns, like others throughout the nation, recalled bitter memories of encounters they've seen or had with police over the years.Calls to police administrators and departments' internal affairs offices have escalated since the March 3 incident. Some call with new complaints of police brutality. Others want to discuss incidents that occurred years ago - even some that occurred decades ago.
Still more call just to vent their outrage. Others have phoned the media, hoping to capture some of the increased attention on police with stories ranging from "an officer beat me" to "an officer used abusive language."
"It's all anybody wants to talk about," said Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Chabries, who says he has received calls every day from people concerned about police brutality.
But police officials say law enforcement officers are getting a bum rap. They say they're not brutes bent on dispensing their own rough justice. No one denies that police brutality occurs in Utah, but authorities insist that such incidents are clearly the exception and not the rule.
"Police officers are proud of their profession, and they want to keep that feeling and keep pride in their work," said Rick Phipps, training supervisor for Utah's Peace Officer Standards and Training.
No one suggests that all cops are bad.
"We're only talking about a few officers," said Jeff Fox, director of the Crossroads Urban Center, an advocacy group for the poor.
Recently he began documenting those stories in preparation for a class action suit against the Salt Lake City Police Department. Fox's discovery: "I hear the same officers' names over and over again."
"It's usually a couple of officers responsible for most of the complaints" said Michele Parish, director of Utah's ACLU chapter. "Eventually those officers are moved off the street or taken off the force."
Still, a handful of bad cops can leave a lasting impression.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Salt Lake City Police Department in 1987 for breaking Victoria Reyes' arm while arresting her. Despite Reyes' screams of pain, officers twisted her arm behind her back so tightly that the bone in her lower arm snapped, the complaint said. Police ultimately settled the case out of court.
Attorney Jeff Eisenberg also took the Salt Lake police to court in another incident involving the arrest of a black man - an arrest Eisenberg believes resulted from racism.
The officer who stopped and handcuffed the ailing man testified he did so because the man fit the description of a known criminal. But in his own police report, the officer wrote that he stopped Eisenberg's client because the man appeared to be a stranger in the area.
"If a guy is black, he gets stopped for being a stranger in the neighborhood," Eisenberg said.
Most law enforcement officers share the indignation and sense of outrage at police misbehavior. They are especially horrified at the conduct of the officers who participated in the King beating, said Dr. Mark Zelig, a police psychologist. "In fact, they are probably stronger critics of that behavior than the public at large."
Zelig says statistics speak for themselves. At one local department, he said only one complaint against police actions is received for every 400 arrests. And only a few of those complaints are found to have any merit.
"I think it's pretty amazing that the officers are that skilled," he said.
Without question, officers sometimes need to use physical force to take control of certain situations. A fleeing suspect needs to be chased or a gunman disarmed. But most agree there is a fine line between necessary and too much force.
"If you use too little you can create a dangerous situation, and if you use too much you violate someone's rights," Zelig said.
Like other police psychologists throughout the nation, Zelig said most officers are attracted to police work by the opportunity to help people - not to have power over them. The majority of those who apply to become officers also have higher IQs than the average person and are more well-adjusted, he said.
Another false stereotype, he says, is that police officers are more racist and more likely to develop prejudices than others. "I really think they are so dedicated to wanting to help people that that offsets any tendency to become prejudiced." Every police officer in the state must receive training on when and when not to use force. "The key by-words are `Is it reasonable?' and `Is it necessary?' " said Phipps.
Chases - like the now-famous one in Los Angeles - often provide the ingredients that can lead to the use of excessive force.
The officers' and the suspects' adrenalin begins to flow. Whizzing through neighborhoods or busy streets at high speeds creates additional hazards for both the participants and anyone else who happens to be in the area. Animosity and anger can quickly build inside both the chaser and the "chasee."
"You get pretty pumped up, and your emotions are going," said Salt Lake Police spokesman Sgt. Scott Atkinson. Such feelings can easily increase if the suspect is believed to be a child molester or someone who has committed an equally heinous crime.
When an officer finally catches up with the suspect, a natural human tendency can be to want to rush over and punch him, Phipps said. "That's why training is absolutely critical."
Officers are taught to recognize what is happening to them, think out possible scenarios and decide if the chase is worth the dangers it's creating. "We want officers to keep their minds and bodies working together," said Phipps.
POST trainers teach them breathing methods to calm them down. Officers are also taught techniques designed to take advantage of any force the suspects use against them. And just so they know what it feels like, officers themselves are handcuffed during training exercises, Phipps said. This helps them understand what those who are arrested feel like, what pain they feel when their arms are twisted, etc.
"Its a big myth that excessive force is the result of a brutal person," explained Zelig. "An officer (who uses too much force) is often frightened, did not see any alternatives and used the force as a last resort . . . Sometimes he simply needs additional training in how to deal with specific situations."
Phipps said officers use four "compensating behaviors" when confronted with a situation that they don't know how to handle: verbal aggression, hesitation, bluffing and excessive use of force.
Some officers may turn to the compensating behaviors because they have forgotten the training they received or are not confident in their abilities to do what they were trained to do.
Unlike many states, officers in Utah are required to receive at least 40 hours of training every year. "Utah for several years was the only state that required yearly training to maintain their certification," Phipps said. "That's one thing that's helped keep professionalism in Utah."
Phipps and other instructors can often spot weaknesses when officers return for their 40 hours of training. For example, if a deputy has trouble putting handcuffs on a suspect, that may show up during training courses on arrest-control techniques.
It is important that other officers and supervisors notice officers' problems because policemen and policewomen tend to shy away from admitting they need help. "Oftentimes, an admission they're unable to handle a certain situation is something looked upon as having a weakness," Zelig said.
Societal expectations are sometimes so heavy that it's difficult for officers to admit they aren't the leaders they're expected to be, he said.
Other experts have said that frustration may be one reason for officers to use excessive force. Street cops undoubtedly feel frustrated when they arrest a burglar or drug dealer and recognize him as someone they've arrested months before. Plea bargains and indeterminate sentences can appear to mock them and their authority.
But Zelig says he sees few examples of officers administering their own street justice along the Wasatch Front. "It's a myth to believe that if an officer becomes stressed, they're going to vent their stress on the streets," he said.
Phipps said trainers try to stress the concept of "you've made your arrest, let the courts do the rest." But just as trusting the courts can be difficult for victims, officers, too, sometimes have trouble believing in the legal system.
"We offer them training, but all training is self-administered," which means that it's up to the officer to apply it to his job, he said. "It boils down to each officer has to make their own decision."
Phipps teaches recruits that officers can die two ways. They can physically die when a suspect shoots or stabs them or they can die professionally by accepting a bribe or somehow tarnishing their badge.
The Los Angeles beating has helped drive that message home to recruits. He likens the incident to the Chinese symbol for misfortune. Strangely, the symbol for opportunity is the same.
The beating "created an opportunity to assess our programs and see if we're where we want to be," he said. "When something happens, you correct it and move on."
As a matter of policy, the Salt Lake Police Department's Internal Affairs office investigates all complaints of misconduct about one of its officers.
"Internal Affairs is to make sure cops aren't stepping out of line and violating department policies," explained Salt Lake Police spokesman Sgt. Scott Atkinson.
The steps in an investigation are as follows:
- The office conducts interviews, obtains facts and sends its findings to the officer's captain. It does not make any recommendations.
- The captain then reviews the I.A. findings and makes a recommendation.
- The captain's recommendation and the I.A. report is sent to the two lieutenant colonels for review.
- The chief of police then reviews the findings and makes the final decision about what action, if any, will be taken.
If the allegation is of a criminal nature, the detective division will also conduct an investigation and pass on its findings to the county attorney's office. Prosecutors there determine if any criminal laws were broken.