Rodney King revisited

by Columnist Greg Meyer
Sponsored by TASER

The legitimacy of police power is questioned in the wake of a high-visibility police use-of-force incident if the public perceives law enforcement actions were improper. Most people understand when officers are forced to shoot someone who shoots at them, but disparate viewpoints surround other use-of-force situations that attract public attention.

The 1991 Rodney King incident in Los Angeles was perhaps the most prominent modern example of a controversial non-deadly encounter. It’s roots are found in the politically driven decision in the early 1980’s that resulted in neck restraint holds being elevated to the “deadly force” level at the LAPD, and the substitution of the police baton as the first resort to counter significant resistance to arrest.

The King incident stands as a classic in police history, and there are still lessons to be learned from it.

In the middle of the night of March 3, 1991, King, a paroled robber, drove a vehicle at speeds over one hundred miles-per-hour on a Southern California freeway. He was pursued by California Highway Patrol officers who requested Los Angeles Police Department assistance when King exited the freeway and continued driving recklessly on surface streets. Once stopped, King's two passengers complied with police orders to get out of the car and submit to arrest. King eventually got out of the car and performed a bizarre "dance." He was sweating, laughing and talking irrationally, and many officers on the scene believed he was on drugs, most likely PCP.

The sergeant on the scene ordered four officers to approach and handcuff King, but King threw them off. The sergeant used a Taser electronic stun device on King, who fell to the ground. At that moment, a bystander across the street began videotaping the event. King rose to his feet and charged an officer who delivered a baton blow to King's upper body simultaneously with the sergeant's use of the Taser device again. King fell to the ground and sustained an ugly facial wound. King repeatedly attempted to regain his footing as two officers kicked and used police batons on him for well over a minute as the amateur video camera recorded the action.

The videotape was broadcast on a local news program then was rebroadcast worldwide. Because Rodney King and his companions were black and most of the officers on the scene were white, the brutality argument was immediately framed in racial terms. Many people falsely believed that King had been beaten while he was handcuffed and that he was nearly killed by the police. In reality, he sustained numerous bruises and contusions along with a fractured ankle and fractured cheek bone.

Ultimately, three officers and their sergeant faced criminal charges. The chief of police buckled under relentless public pressure and announced his retirement. In court the accused officers argued that the force options they used were legitimate, based on what they had been taught for years. They were acquitted in a California state court, and the biggest riots in modern United States history occurred.

In Los Angeles, fifty-six people died during the violence. At the behest of the President of the United States (who was in the midst of a re-election campaign), federal criminal charges for violation of King's civil rights were brought against the four officers; two were convicted and sent to prison. Another federal civil jury later awarded Rodney King $3.8 million in general and compensatory damages, but no punitive damages, which the accused officers themselves would have had to pay, were awarded.

The Rodney King incident was a complex event open to many interpretations. Depending upon one's life experiences and point-of-view, the King incident was an example of uncontrolled brutality, or it was a controlled use of force that was the logical (but ugly and inept) outcome of nine years of indefensible policy and training. Rodney King was an African-American motorist who was gratuitously brutalized by rogue, racist cops, or he was a drunken ex-con who led police on a high-speed chase, then resisted arrest because, as King himself admitted, he did not want to go back to prison.

Lou Cannon, in his book Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD, pointed out the complexities of the situation. He suggested the following perspectives:

Responsibility for the incident lay with the involved officers and the supervisor of this single incident, or it lay with the police chief, his political bosses, and their misbegotten policies that resulted during the previous decade in thousands of other baton-based use-of-force incidents that did not come to public attention.

When the accused officers were acquitted at their first criminal trial, the 1992 Los Angeles riots were the fault of the jurors who failed to convict the officers, or they were the fault of the rioters who were encouraged by inflammatory comments from the mayor of Los Angeles and the President of the United States, or they were the fault of the police who ironically hesitated to use deadly force against the initial rioters who engaged in major race-based assaults against innocent people, and of police leaders who failed to organize a coherent response to suppress the riot.

The King incident may be viewed from many perspectives: the officers on the scene, officers with the same policy and training who were not on the scene, officers who do not have similar policy and training, police management, people of different races and backgrounds who apply their own life experiences to the situation, politicians, special interest groups, the media, and countless others.

The emotions, complexity of issues and tragic aftermath, including the riots that surrounded the King incident and the famous videotape that documented the incident, combined to make the Rodney King case a defining moment in law enforcement history. The incident must be studied in depth so that appropriate conclusions can be drawn, learning can occur and necessary improvements made by police personnel the world over.

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