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Rodney King, 20 years later

Author’s Note: With last week’s 20th anniversary of the Rodney King incident, I’ve been getting many inquires about the case. Last Friday, CNN presented a documentary on the case, with much interesting information, but it failed as a piece of journalism: it did not provide one word to answer the question “WHY?” Why did the King incident occur? I wrote the below article a day after two of the officers were convicted in federal court after previously being acquitted in state court. The article appeared in the Los Angeles Daily Journal on August 19, 1993, and it was widely republished in other forums.

Sergeant Stacey Koon and Officer Laurence Powell, convicted and sentenced for the Rodney King beating, apparently are going to prison. Where do we go from here? Police officers, sheriff’s deputies and corrections system personnel are still going to have to knock down resisting suspects. Shall we put all of these officers in jail, or just the ones captured on videotape doing their jobs?

The popular media has continued to focus on the emotional aspects of the Rodney King tragedy and its undeniable symbolism to those who count themselves among the disenfranchised members of society. Officials within the criminal justice system, from Attorney General Janet Reno to the police chief of the smallest town, need to look beyond the symbolism. They should focus on the practical aspects of improving the tactics and tools used by law enforcement.

To make meaningful improvements, one must first come to understand the roots of the Rodney King tragedy. Without this understanding, practical methods to prevent similar incidents will remain elusive.

The day after the sentence was pronounced, The Daily Journal reported a critical line, ignored by the more prominent media, from Judge John Davies’s sentencing rationale. “Powell’s baton blow that broke King’s leg was not illegal because King was still resisting and rolling around on the ground, and breaking bones in resisting suspects is permissible under police policy, Davis said.”

This is fascinating stuff. Too bad that millions just won’t get it. Many people, with good, historic reasons, claim “our people can’t get justice in this country,” and they make emotionally appealing but illogical comparisons of the King beating to the beating of truck driver Reginald Denny. Surely these angles sell more newspapers and generate higher cost-per-minute broadcast advertising revenues. But they shed no light on why trained law enforcement personnel perform such brutal acts as seen on the King video.

Rational people must face and come to grips with the question of accountability for the King beating. Many people have taken the emotional path of least resistance and have concluded that Koon and Powell were just a couple of thugs who were operating outside of police policy and training. But this point of view becomes a bit difficult if one turns back the clock to 1981 and re-reads the published comments of city officials during the controversy over whether to take away the “chokehold” tactic from the police.

Two examples are particularly startling. Then Los Angeles City Attorney Ira Reiner (later, ironically, the district attorney who chose to prosecute the officers in the first trial), was quoted in the Sept. 18, 1981, Los Angeles Times, as saying, “If police officers cannot use the [choke]holds . . . then the officers will use potentially more dangerous techniques, such as the use of batons and karate kicks.”

Robert Farrell, then-City Councilman, was quoted in the Oct. 7, 1981, Times, asserting that it would be more “cost effective for the city to settle claims for broken bones of combative suspects who are hit with batons rather than to pay settlements” in chokehold cases.

Who dares to interview these former politicians and hold them accountable for these comments and for the failure to provide officers with more humane alternatives? At least at Nuremburg, we first hung the policymakers, not the infantry sergeants and their troops.

Everyone close to the chokehold controversy knew that a serious gap would be created in police restraint methods when the holds were removed, and they knew that beatings would be the result. Beatings were even deemed to be more cost effective!

Some have theorized that the King beating was a frenzied, undisciplined, post-pursuit administration of curbstone justice. Had that been the case, the stereotypical scenario is that the accused officers would have run up to the car, pulled the driver out and the beating would be on. The King incident, as those who made the effort to learn the details know, did not occur that way. The officers cautiously deployed, gave appropriate commands, and tried several less injurious tactics (which failed) before escalating to the baton. Even the baton was used in a way that both the judge and the prosecution’s own use-of-force expert acknowledged was appropriate and within policy well into the incident.

The obvious question which the journalistic pack failed to ask was, “Why in the world would most of what we see on that tape be appropriate and within policy?” If this question is not asked and answered, then the policy makers who should stand beside the officers and held accountable, will not be.

It is far easier for us to brand as thugs two low-ranking police officers than it is to accept that officials of our police, justice, and political systems could have been parties to policies which routinely allowed resisting suspects to be hit with metal pipes and kicked with combat boots. Like it or not, that was the law of the streets in Los Angeles throughout the 80s and into the 90s, as established by policy and training, and it was sanctioned by the internal and political review processes. The only mystery about the Rodney King incident is why other similar incidents were not captured on videotape, given the proliferation of video cameras.

The public, perhaps unwisely, counts on the major news media for comprehensive information about important issues. The major media failed miserably at explaining why the Rodney King beating occurred. This failure was a terrible disservice to the public and to hundreds of thousands of cops and deputies across America who would — and do — lay down their lives for you without hesitation.

So, again, where do we go from here? Surely what was seen on the King video cannot be allowed to continue as acceptable police policy and practice.

Throughout America, law enforcement is in the middle of a transition of how resisting suspects are taken into custody. Progressive agencies like Orlando, Fla., the entire State of Wisconsin, the FBI and others have taken significant steps to make their use-of-force practices more humane. This was achieved by ordering their tools and tactics on a scale that is based on research which shows the number and severity of injuries that will likely result from a particular tool or tactic. No tool or tactic is perfectly safe or 100 percent effective, but prudent policy making can turn the odds in favor of more humane outcomes.

Law enforcement leaders who are interested in improving the use-of-force situation will take five steps. First, they will recognize the need to adopt more humane tools and tactics. Second, they will make a solid commitment to reducing injuries to suspects and officers. Third, they will equip each officer with effective, available nonlethal weapons. Fourth, they will train and empower their officers to use these devices early in a confrontation, before the situation degenerates into one which requires a more injurious level of force. Fifth, they will require their officers to explain why a more injurious level of force was used when a less injurious one was available, and they will provide appropriate training and discipline when the rationale falls short.

At some point, the public must become tired of paying out millions of tax dollars to criminals who resist arrest. That money would be better spent equipping officers with nonlethal weapons and funding the research efforts of people like TASER inventor Jack Cover. He and others are trying to provide better equipment, but they get little or no help with funds for research and testing. Devices like the TASER, the Ultron and various types of “pepper spray” have already saved hundreds of lives and prevented thousands of broken bones. They need to be used more than they are, and they need to be improved to be more reliable and more effective.

The federal government needs to provide more help in this effort. The National Institute of Justice is researching several innovates approaches, but NIJ’s current bulletin on the subject points out that some of these are still at the “pipe-dream level, and it may be several years before any advanced [nonlethal weapon] is developed.”

Those of use in law enforcement need to do better, and we want to do better. We also want to stay out of prison. But we need some help. If we can put a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth, we should be able to put a man on the ground and take him safely to jail.

Greg Meyer, a retired Captain from the Los Angeles Police Academy, served for 30 years, including eight years as a commanding officer. Greg is a member of the National Advisory Board of the Force Science Research Center, a member of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).