HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Los Angeles:

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The 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney G. King exemplified so much that was (and in some cases still is) wrong with the LAPD that it bears re-telling.3 In brief, in the early morning hours of March 3, 1991, King led California Highway Patrol,Los Angeles Unified School District police, and LAPD officers on a high-speed car chase in the San Fernando Valley. Once he pulled over, he and his friends were ordered out of the car. King was beaten by LAPD officers, as a sergeant directed from nearby, with approximately fifty-six baton strokes; he was also kicked in the head and body and stunned with a Taser stun gun. Some of the beating was captured on an amateur photographer's videotape, a tape that was eventually viewed around the world.4

Many components of the King incident are common to less-publicized abuse cases. There was the obvious race factor - the officers involved in the beating were white, and King was black. The beating followed a vehicle pursuit, and once stopped, the defendant was not considered by officers to be compliant enough - a common scenario in police beatings. When the man who videotaped the beating and King's brother, Paul, attempted to report the incident they reportedly were turned away or ignored. Inaccurate reports were filed by police after the incident. Three out of the four officers eventually indicted for the beating had been named in prior complaints of excessive force.5 In fact, it is likely that, if this incident had not been videotaped and broadcast widely, any complaint about the beating would not have been sustained, since the sustained rate for complaints during that period was approximately 2 percent.6

A cavalier attitude was demonstrated after the beating. On a radio transmission, from the LAPD dispatcher to the fire department for an ambulance, a policedispatcher said, "....he pissed us off, so I guess he needs an ambulance now....should know better than run, they are going to pay a price when they do that....It's's a ....battery, he got beat up."7 One of the officers on the scene stated on the car radio, "Oops," and "I haven't beaten anyone this bad in a long time."8

The subsequent April 29, 1992 state court acquittal of four officers on assault with a deadly weapon and assault under color of authority charges9 led to rioting in the city: fifty-four people were killed, 2,383 injured (221 critically), and 13,212 arrested. Property damage was estimated at more than $700 million for the county.10 There were also violent protests in other cities in response to the verdicts. While some who rioted may have been less concerned with the "not guilty" verdicts than with an opportunity to steal items and destroy property, the explosion of rage reflected the belief that African-Americans could not get justice, even when the crime seemed apparent on tape.

The officers were subsequently tried on federal criminal civil rights charges. Sergeant Stacey Koon and Officer Laurence Powell were convicted of violating Rodney King's civil rights in April 1993 and sentenced to thirty months' imprisonment.

3 See also Paul Hoffman, "The feds, lies, and videotape: the need for an effective federal role in controlling police abuse in urban America," Southern California Law Review (Los Angeles) vol. 66, no. 4, May 1993, pp. 1455-1532, and Human Rights Watch, "Police brutality in the United States: A policy statement on the need for federal oversight," July 1991.

4 The videotaped beating shown on television was edited by a local television station, leaving out a portion of the incident during which King allegedly lunged towards one of the officers. The editing's impact is described in Lou Cannon, Official Negligence (New York: Random House, 1997), pp. 23-4, 577-81 .

5 Officer Laurence Powell, who was an officer trainer, was the subject of several excessive force complaints and at least one civil lawsuit which cost the city $70,000 in a settlement after he broke a man's elbow with baton strikes. Officer Theodore Briseno had reportedly hit and kicked a handcuffed suspect in 1987, which was witnessed by two other officers, and received a sixty-day suspension. Sergeant Stacey Koon was the subject of one excessive force complaint during more than fourteen years on the force, stemming from an incident in September 1986. The complaint was not sustained, but he was suspended for five days for failing to report the incident. The fourth officer, Timothy Wind, was still a probationary officer at the time of the King incident. Cannon, Official Negligence.

6 In a related development, following the King beating and videotape, the use of batons by officers - or the reporting of their use - fell off dramatically, and the use of pepper spray went up. As described in the May 1996 Police Commission report, pp. 7-8.

7 Christopher Commission report, p. 15.

8 Transmission from the squad car of Officers Laurence Powell and Timothy Wind, Christopher Commission report, p. 15.

9 The jury was deadlocked on one assault charge against Officer Powell; the Superior Court judge dismissed that charge once federal civil rights prosecution was initiated.

10 James D. Delk, "Fires and Furies: The L.A. Riots," ETC Publications, Palm Springs, CA. 1995. Property damage was estimated to have exceeded $900 million in Cannon, Official Negligence, p. 347.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch