March 9, 2011
Rodney King beating 20 years later: Can't we all just get along?
This week marks the twentieth anniversary of the Rodney King beating, an incident which shone the spotlight on police brutality and race relations in Los Angeles and throughout the United States.
On March 3, 1991, King -- who was driving with two of his friends in his white Hyundai -- was stopped by LAPD officers following a high-speed chase on the 210 freeway with the California Highway Patrol. King reportedly had been drinking with his friends. Ordered out of car, King was repeatedly beaten and kicked by officers Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno and Stacey Koon. According to court records, after learning that King worked at Dodger Stadium, Powell said to King: "'We played a little ball tonight, didn't we Rodney? You know, we played a little ball, we played a little hardball tonight, we hit quite a few home runs. Yes, we played a little ball and you lost and we won.'"
King sustained serious internal injuries, including a broken cheekbone and a broken right ankle, and received 20 stitches, including five inside of his mouth. In his negligence claim against the city of Los Angeles, for which he later won $3.8 million, he also claimed he suffered "11 skull fractures, permanent brain damage, broken [bones and teeth], kidney damage [and] emotional and physical trauma."
The four officers would later claim self-defense, arguing that their lives were in danger from King, who they said was aggressive and was resisting arrest. Meanwhile, other police officers who were on the scene did nothing to stop the beating. What made this police beating incident different from many others was that it was caught on videotape -- by a bystander named George Holliday, a plumbing company manager. The tape showed that the officers clubbed King with 56 baton strokes, and kicks to the head and body.
The LAPD officers were charged but were later acquitted by a jury trial the following year. The acquittal led to the April 1992 Los Angeles riots, in which 55 people were killed, about 2,000 were injured and 12,000 arrested, with over $1 billion in property damage. In the midst of the riots King called for calm, asking in the now famous words, "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?" The officers were subsequently tried in federal court on civil rights violations, where Powell and Koon were convicted and sentenced to 30 months each. Wind and Briseno were acquitted.
In the wake of the Rodney King beating, The Christopher Commission report was issued to conduct "a full and fair examination of the structure and operation of the LAPD," including its recruitment and training policies, citizen complaint system and internal disciplinary practices. The report found that a significant number of police officers used excessive force and ignored department guidelines. In addition, the complaint system was skewed against complainants. There was a breakdown in leadership on the force, a management problem, with a failure to deal with repeat offender officers who were often promoted and rewarded for their behavior.
"Testimony from a variety of witnesses depict the LAPD as an organization with practices and procedures that are conducive to discriminatory treatment and officer misconduct directed to members of minority groups," the report found. "Witnesses repeatedly told of LAPD officers verbally harassing minorities, detaining African-American and Latino men who fit certain generalized descriptions of minorities, employing unnecessarily invasive or humiliating tactics in minority neighborhoods and using excessive force." Police officers of color, the Christopher Commission found, were also susceptible to racist slurs, racially-motivated behavior and discriminatory treatment, which was attributed to white dominance in LAPD managerial positions. In light of these findings, the Commission recommended the resignation of LAPD police chief Daryl Gates.
The LAPD's reputation was further damaged in the late 1990s by the corruption scandal involving the Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) anti-gang unit of the LAPD's Rampart Division. Over 70 officers were implicated of brutality, misconduct and corruption. At least three officers in the unit were found to be on the payroll of Death Row Records boss and convicted felon Marion "Suge" Knight, who is affiliated with the Bloods gang. The officers were implicated in the drive-by shooting murder of rapper Christopher "Biggie Smalls" Wallace, (a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G.). The scandal led to over 140 civil lawsuits, with settlement costs of over $125 million. The report of the Rampart Review Panel noted a sense of insularity in the CRASH unit. This created an "us versus them" mentality towards the community, and an "ends justifies the means" attitude that led to abuses of authority, such as the planting of evidence, unjustifiable beatings and shootings, bank robbery and drug dealing. "Community policing -- which must be at the heart of the Department's efforts to reestablish its credibility with the public -- remains more a slogan than reality. And ethics remains almost an afterthought in the training of the City's police officers," according to the report.
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