Rodney King: A cop's perspective

What did law enforcement take away from this highly publicized incident?

“Rodney King, the man who was at the center of the Los Angeles police brutality case that later sparked the Los Angeles riots, has died.”

When ABC World News announced Rodney King's death on June 17, 2012, I imagined how a high school history teacher may try to integrate that news into their lesson plans. Perhaps the question might be posed, “Can anyone tell me how the Rodney King Beating impacted law enforcement in America?”

Here’s a cop’s perspective.

In this April 30, 1992 file photo, Los Angeles police form a line to prevent a crowd from going into a building in a day of fires and looting in Los Angeles.
In this April 30, 1992 file photo, Los Angeles police form a line to prevent a crowd from going into a building in a day of fires and looting in Los Angeles. (Photo/AP/Nick Ut, File)

The Incident

On March 3, 1991, Rodney King was driving while intoxicated. When officers attempted to arrest him, the large, belligerent man resisted that arrest.

A citizen, George Holliday, picked up his video camera and taped the in-progress drama playing out in front of him. Ultimately, LAPD officers found themselves criminally charged. There was one mistrial and four were acquitted in a Simi Valley courtroom.

The officers were tried a second time in federal court and two were convicted of violating King’s constitutional rights. They were sent to federal prison. Two other officers were acquitted a second time.

What did law enforcement take away from this highly publicized incident?

When this case was reported, the media chose to edit out the first three seconds of the tape that showed Rodney King rising up from the street to charge one officer in a clear-cut violent assault. In self-defense, that officer struck King with his PR-24.

The jury saw that portion of the tape for the first time in court after it had been deliberately withheld from the public by the media. This short clip gave credibility to the officers, who testified that a major part of the battle with Rodney King occurred before Holliday turned on his camera.

The defense expertly showed the tape frame by frame to the jury, leading to an acquittal in the first trial. 

The Aftermath

In the wake of the Rodney King case, cameras gradually became standard equipment in patrol cars all over the nation. As far as citizens recording police, there is still much disagreement about how it should be handled.

When it came up during my training, I would tell officers:

  • Have your camera going also.
  • Neither fear nor fight civilian taping. Accept that you will be recorded.
  • Learn to use recordings to your advantage. Go through the legal process to obtain the complete footage as evidence – they will support you more than they will harm you.
  • A professional police officer has nothing to fear from being recorded (undercover officers not included here).
  • Always act as if you are being recorded, because in today’s world you are.

Since the King arrest, officers of the Los Angeles Police Department have made hundreds of arrests every day. Between 1%-3% of those people resist arrest, causing Los Angeles police officers to have to use some level of force to overcome that resistance. And yet there have been no more Rodney King-type tapes.

There is a reason for this.

After the Rodney King incident, the Los Angeles Police Department did an extensive review of their use-of-force training and asked, “How can we do better?” 

They studied not just how often people resisted, but exactly how they resisted. They analyzed the most common first moves of resistive suspects and sought to prepare officers to effectively counter those moves.

They sought the input of experts from inside and outside the department to obtain a variety of options that might be taught to officers on how to best control different types of resistance they could face.

After extensive study, they put together an effective and defensible system of defensive tactics and control for their officers.

The Training

There is a country song that says, “I fought the law and the law won.” It is safe to say two officers landing in federal prison while the suspect walks away a millionaire does not constitute a win for the officers involved.

A powerful lesson learned by police trainers nationally from the Rodney King incident was that officers not only need to be trained to physically survive each call, but they have to survive every call legally and emotionally.

The officers in the Rodney King case all survived physically, but they did not all survive legally and no one can calculate the emotional damage caused to each officer at that scene.

Police training is still evolving, but we continue to find better ways to train officers to survive their careers on all these levels.

The media learned nothing. It still edits tapes, satisfied to sacrifice accuracy and even the truth to fit a narrative.

A Cop’s Perspective: I’d Rather Be a Cop than Rodney King

Cops never make millions of dollars like Mr. King, but we always have a few bucks in our pocket and know a place where we can spend it on the best chili dog in town. We meet interesting people, do exciting things every day and the world would go to hell in a handbasket without us.

We work with some of the funniest people in the world, who would lay down their life for us even if they wouldn’t hesitate to pull seniority for a shot at some easy overtime.

We take people to jail who have scared the living daylights out of their families and afterward we get to go home to a family that loves us.

No one but a cop has experienced the incredible love that comes on like a wave when you lean over and kiss your sleeping child after a really tough shift.

It’s great being a cop. Since March 3, 1991, American law enforcement has become a “true profession” and still strives to learn from its mistakes and improve.

On the other hand, Rodney King lived his life knowing that 2,000 people would not have been seriously injured, 53 people would not have died and 1,100 buildings would not have been destroyed if he had just complied with a lawful arrest.

He collected $3.8 million for badly losing the fight he started. However, the money did not buy him a “happily ever after" ending as King continued to abuse alcohol, drugs and some of the women in his life.

In the end, Rodney King the millionaire died alone at the bottom of his pool. 

This article, originally published 06/25/2012, has been updated.

Recommended for you

Copyright © 2023 Police1. All rights reserved.