Second of a series

You might say that Ambrose McCree is obsessed with the beating handed out to Rodney King by the Los Angeles police.

A retired California truck driver, McCree spent March 14 at the Los Angeles City Council's open forum investigation of the videotaped assault.

"I just, I almost cried when I saw that videotape," said McCree. "It was the most horrifying thing I've ever seen. I was speechless."

Electrocuted with a stun gun, stomped with booted feet and clubbed some 56 times with police batons that fractured his skull in 9 places, King brings back violent memories for McCree.

"I knew what that guy was going through," explained McCree. "When I saw that guy being kicked, it was a flashback."

For McCree, 59, the videotaped mauling was a chilling reminder of the beating he suffered at the hands of Phoenix police, a beating that speaks directly on the point of supervision of off-duty officers.

McCree maintains that two Phoenix cops beat him with their fists, and that as one officer continued to punch him while he was on the ground, a second officer kicked him repeatedly in the head.

McCree's viewing of the King tape in the Los Angeles City Council's chambers on March 14 happened on the same day Mayor Paul Johnson wrote NFL owners that Phoenix was not troubled by racial conflict.

On February 28, five days before Rodney King made the mistake of leading pursuing officers on a car chase in California, Ambrose McCree was in an Arizona courtroom amending his multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the Phoenix Police Department.

According to his attorney, McCree ended up in a confrontation with the police because of his skin color.

"We believe they [McCree and his driving partner] wouldn't have been stopped except for the fact that they were black," said Ernest Shaver, who is assisting Duane Varbel in the representation of McCree. "In the minds of the Phoenix police, that makes them suspicious. It wouldn't have mattered if they were in a suit and tie. The critical thing is they were black."

The two officers who attacked McCree claim that the victim's black skin had nothing to do with the assault.

When the NAACP's county president, Reverend Oscar Tillman, called for Phoenix Police Chief Ruben Ortega's resignation on February 4, he cited racial insensitivity as the primary issue.

In a subsequent meeting called at Phoenix City Hall to mediate the dispute, the Baptist minister enumerated a more specific list of concerns. Topping that agenda was Tillman's anxiety over what he described as the nonexistent supervision of off-duty police officers who work security details in the private sector.

Chief Ortega, who in the past had refused to discuss the employment of off-duty officers with Tillman, accused the NAACP leader of reckless rabble-rousing and grandstanding in the press.

The McCree case, however, has never been publicized by anyone, let alone Tillman; in fact, the McCree beating preceded the minister's recent move to Phoenix from Tacoma, Washington.

Devoid of the political overtones that infect the Ortega debate, the details of the McCree incident underscore Reverend Tillman's contention that off-duty police officers working private security jobs are virtually unsupervised by the department.

Officer Ron Kobelka, who initiated the assault against Ambrose McCree, had been so violent in the past that the police department itself tried to fire him. He was reinstated by the Civil Service Review Board on a procedural technicality.

In 1980 Kobelka intentionally dropped a prisoner on his face, according to police records. The prisoner, shackled at the feet and cuffed at the hands, required stitches to close the wound in his bloody face.

Sergeant Joseph J. Hauer, who investigated the incident, wrote in his report: "Officer Kobelka should be required to seek some professional counseling. This is the second incident in a period of two months where Officer Kobelka's actions have been overreactive in dealing with the public, which resulted in injuries to the individuals he was dealing with. Since Officer Kobelka's been under my supervision, I have found him to be very quiet and a loner, with very little socializing with other members of the squad. He has the knowledge and ability to perform his duties as a patrol officer, but lately has been unable to adequately perform under stress situations . . . ."

Despite Kobelka's documented propensity toward violence, despite an investigating sergeant's observation that Kobelka did not handle stress professionaly, the department gave its permission for the officer to moonlight at the Sixpence Inn. As if the additional overtime hours were not pressure enough for the officer, the department agreed that Kobelka could work a high-crime neighborhood as a security guard, an area noted for prostitution and violence; two weeks before Kobelka's assault upon McCree, another off-duty police officer in the vicinity had been shot by a pimp. Kobelka himself was involved in at least two violent incidents at the Sixpence Inn while working off-duty, before the beating of McCree.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey