When a Police Officer Kicks a Gang Member

If you've been near a television set in the last few days you've probably seen the video of that police officer kicking a man in the head at the end of a high-speed car chase here in the Los Angeles area. I watched the incident on the news last night, and my initial reaction was: "Uh oh."

Thursday's chase began when officers in El Monte, Calif., spotted a Toyota Camry with three men inside, men they quite reasonably (and as it turned out, accurately) took to be gang members. Camrys are among the most commonly stolen cars in Southern California, and there isn't a police officer worthy of the title who would have spotted those three characters in one without running its license number to see if it had been stolen. Officers were following the car and doing just that when the driver, Richard Rodriguez, 23, took off.

The chase lasted 40 minutes, running at speeds nearing 85 miles an hour on freeways, surface streets, and even a sidewalk. When the Camry got stuck in traffic at one point the rear-seat passenger got out and surrendered, but the pursuit continued when traffic cleared. The chase came to an end when the Camry, driving on the wrong side of a divided street, sideswiped an oncoming car that had pulled not quite far enough to the side of the road. The front-seat passenger stayed in the car and gave up, but Rodriguez jumped from the driver's seat and ran. The video shows him running into what appeared to be the back yard of an apartment building where, apparently convinced that the jig was up, he lay prostrate and spread-eagled on the grass. One got the sense he was well practiced in the routine.

From out of the frame rushes a lone officer, pistol in hand. He slows, then approaches Rodriguez and delivers a kick to the right side of his head. Rodriguez reacts to the kick but does not appear to resist. Other officers arrive and assist in handcuffing Rodriguez, at the conclusion of which the first officer -- i.e., the kicker -- exchanges a high-five with a canine handler.

To his great credit, El Monte police chief Tom Armstrong gave a thoughtful statement after being shown the video by a reporter for KNBC news. "I'm looking into it," said Armstrong, "and I don't have all the facts yet. I worked internal affairs for four years, and I've learned that you do not make a decision in a vacuum. ... This is going to be looked into, and it should be, but I'm not here to make a decision and tell you what that officer did was overtly wrong until I know all the facts. I've learned that in the over 30 years I've been a cop." A cop in trouble can expect no more a reasonable response than that from a boss who's just had a big problem land on his desk.