Homicide verdict adds to LA tension

ONCE AGAIN, allegedly brutal treatment of black suspects by police officers in Los Angeles has risen to the fore after a coroner concluded that the death of a black man during an arrest amounted to homicide.

The finding comes as the city tensely awaits a verdict in the civil rights trial of four police officers in the Rodney King beating, amid fears of unrest if the men are acquitted again.

Michael James Bryant, a barber who included Mr King among his clients, died last month after a late-night car chase and a struggle with the police, which bears several similarities to the King beating and lends weight to accusations that the city's police are still using brutal methods.

According to police accounts, an officer from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) shot Bryant with a Taser stun gun after he fell into a swimming pool. He was then 'hogtied', with his wrists and ankles tied behind his back, and placed on his stomach in the back of a patrol car. He died shortly afterwards.

Claims by Bryant's family that he died because the hogtying technique interfered with his breathing (he weighed some 22 stone) appear to have been confirmed by a coroner's report, which said he died of 'cocaine intoxication and asphyxiation from restraint procedures'.

Pathologists have warned police departments that hogtying obese people can be lethal, especially when the victim is under the influence of drugs. The stun gun was ruled out as a cause of death by the coroner, who also found Bryant had scarred heart tissue.

Some of the police involved have also admitted beating Bryant with batons, claiming he refused to submit to arrest. The Friends of Michael Bryant, a protest group, say an independent autopsy established his body had 26 lacerations and a bruise on his chest.

The death of Bryant, 37, has caused great anger in the suburb of Pasadena - Rodney King's home town - where he was a respected businessman. The mayor has written to the US Commission on Civil Rights, asking for an investigation. Friends packed a recent council meeting, demanding an inquiry. His family have filed a dollars 20m (pounds 13m) suit against the police.

For the authorities, the issue has arisen at a volatile time, with city officials making repeated appeals for calm as the conclusion of the Rodney King beating trial nears an end. Yesterday the jury entered its seventh day of deliberations.