When a Police Officer Kicks a Gang Member

As is almost always the case in such incidents, the outcome for the players involved will be determined as much by politics as it is by the application of the law and police procedures. Distasteful as it may be, one must evaluate the racial calculus before attempting to predict what might come to pass. Richard Rodriguez is Latino, as is the officer who kicked him, so there won't be any opportunity for breathless news reports about oppressed minorities being beaten down by racist white cops. Also, Mr. Rodriguez, freshly released from prison, and who sports the name of his street gang in tattoos on his upper lip and neck, is unlikely to arouse much sympathy, either in the public or in members of any jury that might come to hear evidence in this case.

And there is the fact that the story seems to have lost its "legs." The video has already disappeared from television news programs, and the outrage that often follows such televised arrests has failed to materialize. Recall that the video of Rodney King's 1991 arrest was played endlessly, leading to an expectation in the public that the officers accused of beating him would be convicted. When they weren't, Los Angeles erupted into rioting that left 53 people dead and large swaths of the city in ashes.

The ACLU, as might be expected, has written to Los Angeles County district attorney Steve Cooley asking that criminal charges against the officer be considered for his "egregious abuse of force against a suspect who had apparently already surrendered." There is no mention in the letter of their concern for the many lives endangered and the property damaged by Rodriguez's criminal behavior. Perhaps they're trying to cut down on the stationery.

But what should become of the officer who delivered the now-infamous kick? Nothing, according to a lawyer representing the El Monte Police Officers' Association. Attorney Dieter Dammier told the Los Angeles Times that the officer acted within his training and department policy. "The individual officer saw some movement," said Dammier. "He feared the parolee might have a weapon or be about to get up. So the officer did what is known as a distraction blow. It wasn't designed to hurt the man, just distract him."

Like any good attorney, Mr. Dammier is just doing his job, but that one is a stretch. Mr. Rodriguez was no doubt "distracted" by the kick, but even if such a kick were allowed under department policy (which I doubt), it certainly was not the proper tactic to employ at that time. The officer instead should have placed himself behind some kind of cover and waited for help to arrive before attempting to approach the suspect.

But as any cop can tell you, adrenalin is powerful stuff. My guess is that the officer in question, after a long and very stressful pursuit, ran into that yard not knowing that the suspect had given up, instead fully expecting a violent confrontation with him. When he turned the corner and saw the suspect lying on the grass, he was in effect like a bullet that had already been fired. He failed in that moment to re-program himself for the nonviolent conclusion that was unexpectedly but appropriately called for. In so failing, he endangered himself and his fellow officers by risking an altercation that might have resulted in a shooting, and he made them all look bad in the process.

News reports have identified the officer as a 15-year veteran of the department. Surely in that time he has posted a track record that would indicate whether the kick was part of a pattern or an aberration. If the former, perhaps it's time for him to find another line of work. If the latter, let him accept and learn from whatever punishment the process may demand, and then get back to work. Someone has to be willing to go out and chase the Robert Rodriguezes of the world.