Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of Black motorist Rodney King getting his ass good and whipped by a swarm of Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers on March 3. 1991. The incident was unremarkable and routine. It would have completely escaped notice except for one thing—a neighbor, George Holiday, shot the attack on his home video camcorder and two days later gave the tape to television station KTLA. When they broadcast an edited version of the tape all hell broke loose. Outrage over the officers’ perceived brutality spread rapidly as did a backlash in support of the police. Four of the officers involved were indicted and tried. When a California jury failed to convict any of the men, the worst urban rioting in twenty years broke out on April 29, 1992 resulting in 53 deaths and more than 2,000 injuries lasting until May 4. Rioting spread to San Francisco, Las Vegas, and as far away as Atlanta.
That video camera changed everything and ushered in a new era in which police behavior was apt to be captured irrefutably by bystanders. That has only intensified with rapidly evolving technology which quickly made the bulky shoulder held camcorder used by Holiday obsolete replacing it with a rapid succession of ever-more compact, cheap, and widely available technology including digital video which made small, hand held cameras widely available and eventually ubiquitous cell phone camera capacity that has made almost everyone a potential citizen journalist.
A video camcorder like this captured the beating and ushered in a new era of citizen journalism and monitoring police behavior.
At the center of this pivotal moment was Rodney King, a 25 year old Black man. He was not exactly a poster boy of innocent victimhood. He had a checkered past, including run-ins with the law. His criminal record was relatively minor but at the time of the incident he was on parole for robbery, which would be a factor in his disastrously muddled thinking that night. He was the father of three daughters—one with his girlfriend as a teenager, and one with each of his two ex-wives. He was not an exemplary family man. He had a taste for liquor and an occasional joint although he seemed to have avoided more serious narcotics. King worked off and on and was a cab driver at the time. He liked hanging with his friends, which is what he was doing that night.
When most Los Angeles Whites looked at King, they saw the quintessential Black thug—a hulking criminal who defied police, continued to resist through escalating attempts to subdue him, likely hyped up on drugs, and a real threat to the safety of officers who got what he deserved. What Blacks saw was a hard knocks young man not much different than themselves or those that they knew and loved who was viciously attacked by members of an occupying army in their communities.TV shows like Adam 12 helped give the LAPD a squeaky clean image.
Now a quick look at the LAPD. It was then widely considered an elite urban force known for tight discipline and procedures and an aggressive patrol style. While cops in other big cities like New York and Chicago were often slovenly and overweight LA patrolmen were expected to be trim and in shape. In Chicago and NYC cops still wore powder blue uniform shirts that often seemed sloppy. In LA they were clad in tailored and menacing black. Eastern cops still sported porn star moustaches. In the City of Angels they wore mirrored aviator sunglasses. The public perception of the LAPD had been shaped by decades of almost worshipful portrayals on TV from Dragnet to Adam 12 to TJ Hooker. On the big screen detectives played by the likes of Clint Eastwood might go heroically rogue, but uniformed patrolmen were generally straight arrows. The Rodney King affair would be the beginning of a long and continuing deterioration of the Department’s reputation, especially in the Black and other minority communities. That deterioration would be fed in no small measure by more citizen video exposés.
Before a quick review of that fateful night, a word on the nature of the violent confrontation. Unlike many beatings captured on subsequent videos, this one was not simply a case of uncontrolled rage by the police, although the pumping adrenaline after a long high speed car chase undoubtedly was a factor. Nor was it a case of rogue cops. On the whole, everything that happened that night was approved LAPD procedure. Not only that, but moments after the car King was driving was finally stopped, a sergeant was on the scene and took active command. Almost everything that happened subsequently was in response to his direct orders. That, combined with King’s continuing struggle to stand is in large part why the mostly White jury either acquitted or failed to reach a verdict. It raises the question of whether the LAPD vaunted aggressive patrol techniques and policies themselves were unnecessarily brutal and if they were applied with particular harshness against Black and minorities.
That night King and his buddies Bryant Allen and Freddie Helms were at another friend’s LA house watching basketball and drinking. Around 12:30 am on the morning of March 3 two California Highway Patrol officers Tim and Melanie Singer, a married couple, observed King’s 1987 Hyundai Excel speeding and erratically changing lanes on the Foothill Freeway (Interstate 210) in the San Fernando Valley. When they attempted to stop the car, King sped off starting one of California’s notorious high speed freeway chases. Soon dozens of LAPD squads were involved and a helicopter flew over to monitor the route. After exiting the Freeway, the chase continued on residential surface streets. 8 miles after it started LAPD squad cars boxed in King’s car at the corner of Foothill Boulevard and Osborne Street.
Five LAPD officers were the first to join the Singers on the scene. Tim Singer approached the car and ordered the occupants to come out and lay on the ground. Allen and Helms evidently complied, although perhaps not fast enough. Both were roughly handled. Allen was kicked, taunted, and threatened. Helms was kicked so hard in the head that the baseball cap he was wearing was soaked in the blood of his scalp wound. King refused to come out from behind the wheel at first. When he did come out he reportedly acted bizarrely giggling, waving and pointing at the police helicopter overhead, and patting the ground. When he seemed to grab his buttocks Melanie Singer drew her side arm and started to approach him to make the arrest.
It was then that LAPD Sergeant Stacey Koon told Singer to holster her weapon and back off. The police were taking jurisdiction and he was assuming command. LAPD procedure was to approach apparently unarmed subjects in a swarm with weapons holstered to prevent the suspect from seizing a weapon and turning it on officers. He ordered officers Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno, and Rolando Solano to close in on King.
King struggled to resist and threw two officers off his back. He repeatedly tried to stand. The officers later testified that they thought he was unnaturally strong and might be under the influence of Angel Dust—PCPs. He was not. The drug did not show up in his later blood tests, although a breathalyzer test administered in the hospital five hours later indicated he was probably nearly twice the legal level of alcohol during the confrontation. Koon deployed a relatively new tool—a Taser zapping King twice with little effect. It was just after Koon’s second Tase that Holiday began videotaping the incident from his apartment.Rodney King's head and face injuries were still clearly evident a few days after the attack in this picture taken for his lawyer.
King struggled once again to his feet and seemed to lunge at officer Powel who drew his baton and began beating him. The few seconds of King’s alleged “attack” of Powel was edited out of the tape when it was first broadcast on KTLA. Powel continued to beat King after he collapsed on the ground striking him several times before Officer Brisnero stepped in to stop him. Sgt. Koon reinforced the order with a curt “That’s enough!” But King rose again to his knees. Now Koon ordered Powel and Officer Wind to resume the baton attack with power strokes—the full weight of the body behind blows designed to do as much crippling damage as possible. Koon ordered the men to go after his joints—knees, ankles, wrists—to disable King. Brisnero also joined in. A flurry of at least 33 blows and six kicks connected, which became the heart of the Holiday video when it aired. When the beating stopped eight officers again swarmed King finally getting him in handcuffs restraining his arms and legs. He was dragged on his stomach to the side of the road to await an ambulance to take him to the hospital.
At Pacifica Hospital King was found to have suffered 11 skull fractures with possible permanent brain damage, a facial fracture, broken teeth, broken ankle, and internal injuries and bleeding. Hospital staff later testified hearing police officers brag about how many times that had hit King and how hard. The severity of the injuries required a long hospitalization and recovery. King was never charged with any crimes in connection with the incident—likely because of the press uproar after the video became public and because testimony at a trial might affect the civil suit for damages that King’s lawyers soon filed or the eventual criminal cases against the police.
|Mug shots of the unhappy cops indicted by the District Attorney for beating Rodney King.|
King eventually won a judgment of $3.8 million and $1.7 million in attorney’s fees from the City of Los Angeles.
Meanwhile on March 14, 1991 the District Attorney obtained fast Grand Jury indictments against Koon, Powell, Briseno, and Wind and against Koon for as supervisor for “willfully permitting and failing to take action to stop the unlawful assault.” In August, before the case could come to trial the California Court of Appeals removed the original judge in the case after he was overheard assuring the prosecutor “you can trust me” and granted a defense request for a change of venue to nearly lily white Simi Valley in Ventura County.
The jury there consisting of ten Whites, one Latino, and one Asian acquitted three of the officers, but could not agree on one of the charges against Powell. Rioting broke out in Los Angeles soon after the verdicts were announced.
Tom Bradley, LA’s Black Mayor expressed outrage at the verdict—“The jury's verdict will not blind us to what we saw on that videotape. The men who beat Rodney King do not deserve to wear the uniform of the LAPD.” Even Republican President George H.W. Bush said, “Viewed from outside the trial, it was hard to understand how the verdict could possibly square with the video. Those civil rights leaders with whom I met were stunned. And so was I and so was Barbara and so were my kids.” Such expressions of sympathy from the high and the mighty were not enough to quell the rage in the streets. Neither was the simple, plaintive appeal of Rodney King himself—“Can we all get along?”Reginald Denny bleeding from a severe head wound after being dragged from his truck during the LA Riots. Ironically Denny was liberal and had expressed his sympathy for King and support of protests after the acquittal verdict.
The events of the four day riot are too complex to go over here except to note that another video tape of a beating became a symbol of the violence. A news helicopter caught white truck driver Reginald Denny at the wrong place at the wrong time at the corner of Florence and Normandie Avenues. He was dragged from his truck and beaten by a mob and suffered severe head injuries when his skull was smashed with a concrete block. His life was saved when two near-by Black residents, Curtis Yarbrough and Bobby Green Jr. who saw the attack unfold live on TV rushed to the scene and drove Denny to a hospital. Another man took his truck back to his workplace. Denny’s injuries were serious and he spent years in recovery.
It took the combined force of the California National Guard, and Army and Marine Corps troops called up from nearby bases to finally bring the riots to an end on May 4 leaving broad swaths of the city in smoldering ruins.
Federal authorities stepped in and indicted the same defendants on charges of depriving King of his civil rights under color of law. In March of 1993 Koon and Powell were convicted and sentenced to 32 month in prison. Ward and Brisnero were acquitted. Despite appeals, the two officers served their sentences with time off for good behavior.
As for King, despite winning that big settlement, his bouts with substance abuse and run-ins with the law were not over. He was arrested several times for traffic offenses including DUIs and was charged with trying to rundown his then wife. He spent short sentences in jail and several stints in rehab. His longest run at sobriety came after he joined the cast of the cable reality TV show Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Dru Pinsky in 2008 and the next year appeared in a spin-off, Sober House. He lost a good chunk of his settlement money investing in a hip-hop record label that failed. In 2010 he became engaged to Cynthia Kelly, who had served on the jury of his civil case.
On June 12, 1992 Kelly found him unresponsive at the bottom of his pool. He could not be revived. King died at the age of only 47. An autopsy reported accidental drowning when the alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and traces of PCP in his system caused cardiac arrhythmia.