Playing Politics With Crime

Outsiders may be wondering what could have led a California jury to acquit the four officers charged in the Rodney King beating. But California politicians know just how deep the fear of crime runs in their state-and how to run on it. For more than a decade they have played with the crime issue: teased it, massaged it, wielded it against foes. In the 11 years I've covered California politics, only the hatred of taxes has rivaled the fear of crime as a political catalyst. George Deukmejian, a Republican underdog, was narrowly elected governor in 1982 because he opposed an initiative that would have restricted legal handgun purchases. In 1986 voters ousted Chief Justice Rose Bird and two Supreme Court colleagues who overturned death-penalty verdicts. The liberal Democrats who run Los Angeles never disciplined the conservative police chief, Daryl F. Gates, who often offended them but remained above criticism: anything the police wanted, the voters wanted.

Most Americans worry about crime, but in California the issue carries unusual emotional weight. In such a large state, political campaigns have to rely heavily on television ads-and crime is an issue that easily translates into stark 30-second images of women hearing footsteps in the dark, or murdered children going unavenged. Some commentators say that Simi Valley, with its large population of police officers, was an aberration-one of the few places in the country where a jury might be sympathetic to King's assailants. But voting records show that the area differs little from other California suburbs, with residents who see police as a bulwark against urban chaos and crime.

Just how much this phobia is aggravated by racism is a matter of frequent, irresolvable debate. It is hard to imagine a jury with black members finding all four officers innocent in the King beating. Last year two white Long Beach police officers escaped brutality charges involving a black victim when a jury hung 11 to 1 in their favor, with only the single black juror voting to convict. But California's minorities are tough on crime, too. Most blacks support the death penalty, and inner-city residents have called for tougher campaigns against drug dealers and gangs. A slight majority of Hispanics even voted against Hispanic Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso in l986 because he had blocked so many death penalties.

The 1980s were a time of unparalleled political success for the anticrime forces, even as the crime rate remained stubbornly high. Deukmejian won voter approval for the largest prison-construction program in U.S. history-15 prisons, raising the inmate population from 35,000 to 96,000. The "Victims' Bill of Rights" initiative lengthened sentences and limited insanity defenses. Law-and-order candidates like Gov. Pete Wilson prospered while death-penalty opponents like former governor Jerry Brown were defeated.

With each electoral triumph, however, the issue lost some of its urgency--until last week. Outbreaks of arson and looting in even affluent parts of West Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley reminded voters of how far graffiti and gangs have spread. Now the reignited fears are likely to prompt a return to law-and-order politics. Ironically, the first casualty of the hardened fist may be Proposition F, the Los Angeles city-charter amendment that would limit the police chief's tenure, add civilians to police-disciplinary panels and strengthen the Police Commission. Proposition F was a direct response to the King beating, the product of a blue-ribbon commission that was trying to protect the public from both bad citizens and bad cops. The "Yes on F" campaign had been going well, but Richard Lichtenstein, the campaign manager, now declines to predict the measure's future when it goes to voters in June. The Police Protective League opposes it as unnecessary political interference; Chief Gates is so keen to defeat the measure that he attended a "No on F" fund-raiser the night of the King verdict, despite the outbreak of violence.

The apparent failure of the system in the King case may discourage blacks and other minorities from even voting on the measure. "They may think, 'Why go [to the polls] if nothing has worked?'" says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at the Claremont Graduate School. That would allow suburbanites again to control the ballot and would restart the old cycle: crime leading to fear, and fear distorting and blurring images of brutality that once seemed very clear.

1956: 49% support death penalty

1982: Deukmejian elected governor after opposing handgun control

1986: 3 Cailfornia Supreme Court justices who oppose death penalty lose election

1992: 80% support death penalty; Robert Harris put to death, first execution since 1967