I guess lawyers have long memories. Or, at least I do. When it comes to things that don’t seem right – especially things that don’t seem right in high profile legal cases – I latch onto them like a bull dog and I don’t let go.
So when I came across this piece by Andrew Sullivan about drug myths, I immediately flashed back twenty years or so, to the prosecutions of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Sgt. Stacy Koon and Office Laurence Powell for the beating of unarmed motorist Rodney King.
You see, Sullivan cites an article on Reason.com by Jacob Sullum which was inspired by the bizarre tale of Randy Eugene, who “gnawed off most of a homeless man’s face in an unprovoked attack on Miami’s MacArthur Causeway last month.” Ew. As Sullum notes, the media ran with one proffered explanation for Eugene’s ghastly attack: That he was high on “bath salts” at the time of the attack, an explanation Sullum finds dubious.
But in the course of debunking that particular drug myth, Sullum wrote this passage, which instantly brought me back to the Rodney King fiasco:
Stories about psychoactive substances that transform people into irrationally violent monsters with superhuman strength have been tied to various chemical agents over the years, including cocaine, PCP, methamphetamine, and even marijuana. They always prove to be grossly exaggerated, if not utterly fictitious.
A 1989 analysis of “crack-related homicides” in New York City, for example, found that the vast majority of the violence stemmed from black-market disputes, as opposed to the drug’s psychoactive effects. After finding only three documented cases in which people under the influence of PCP alone had committed acts of violence, the authors of a 1988 literature review concluded that “PCP does not live up to its reputation as a violence-inducing drug.”
That does not mean people who use these drugs are never violent. But focusing on extreme cases and presenting them as typical—as police, E.R. physicians, psychiatrists, reporters, and politicians tend to do—suggests such incidents are much more common than they actually are.
It’s that highlighted portion in particular – that “PCP does not live up to its reputation as a violence-inducing drug” – that really jumped out at me, because in the prosecutions of Koon and Powell for the beating of Rodney King, the defense relied heavily on speculation as to whether King was on PCP at the time of the incident, as if that would have justified the use of extreme force to subdue him. For example, during their 1992 trial in state court, Koon and Powell called Officer Joseph Napolitano to testify in their defense:
Napolitano testified that he thought King was under the influence of PCP because he seemed impervious to the Taser that Koon had used and because he was “very rigid and tense when handcuffed, and I felt he was trying to resist us.”
Napolitano, among five officers who handcuffed and hogtied King, said he asked for a second pair of handcuffs because “he was a very big person, and I had formed the opinion in my mind that he was on PCP.”
Medical tests just after the incident determined that King had no drugs in his system, although he was legally drunk.
During his training, Napolitano said, he had heard that people under the influence of PCP could break their handcuffs.
Later, after Koon and Powell were acquitted on state charges but prosecuted in federal court for violation of King’s constitutional rights, the PCP issue arose again:
The defense has maintained that officers Laurence Powell and Timothy Wind, who accompanied King to the hospital, and officer Theodore Briseno and Sgt. Stacey Koon dealt aggressively with King after stopping him for traffic violations because they concluded he was “dusted,” or under the influence of PCP. The drug is reputed to make its users hostile and give them great strength.
Well do I remember the news reports from those trials, listening in disbelief as the talking heads on the evening news reported that various police officers were permitted to testify, based not on any medical or scientific expertise but solely on their street wisdom, I suppose, that they were sure King was high on PCP at the time and that, you know, guys on PCP have superhuman strength … all of which, according to the defense, justified whatever degree of force the arresting officers brought to bear on unarmed Rodney King. And the stunning thing is, it wasn’t just the court that permitted that testimony (and, in the state prosecution, the jury that apparently accepted its validity).
The fact is, virtually no one questioned it.
Not the media. Not the so-called “legal experts” who spoke endlessly on the television and radio about the case. No one.
No one questioned whether these police officers, with zero medical training, should be able to testify in court, under oath, that Rodney King acted like a guy under the influence of PCP at the time of his arrest. No one questioned whether these police officers, with zero medical training, should be able to testify as to the effects of PCP – that it makes an individual more violent, more likely to resist arrest; or, for crying out loud, that it gives a person superhuman strength.
They were permitted to testify to all of that simply because they were cops, and in a courtroom, apparently, cops are considered to be experts on anything they say they’re experts on. Including medicine.
Predictably, they were wrong. The medical evidence suggests that PCP does not make a person excessively violent (let alone give him or her superhuman strength – I still can’t get over that one!) … But, hey, that’s okay. Who needs science when you’ve got a police officer’s expertise.
So, why does this matter 20 years later? Well, as the “Miami Zombie” case shows, people remain highly receptive to stories about drug-induced mania, with or without actual medical evidence to back them up. But more to the point, I suspect that 20 years later judges and juries will still believe anything a wizened cop tells them about how things “really work” on the streets – even when their supposed knowledge of the streets is contrary to medical science.