Below is the first segment of a three part series examining the history of police brutality in Los Angeles leading up to the brutal beating of Rodney King. This series was originally a paper submitted for the Sociology of Power and Authority class taught by Isaac Ariail Reed at University of Virginia.
In April of 1992, South Central Los Angeles broke out in to riots that would define a generation. Over five days, 12,000 people were arrested, 2,383 individuals were injured, and 63 residents were killed. Property damages totaled to one billion dollars.
At the time, there was vast media attention dedicated to the riots and the trial that triggered them. One year earlier, a witness had caught four policeman beating an unarmed Black man on tape, and this video played on newsreels over and over again, a constant reminder of the injustice committed. Ultimately, the policemen were acquitted. LA buildings went up in flames.
News outlets and academia have interpreted and attempted to understand the riots in many different ways, looking at the public’s relations with the police and relations between African Americans and other immigrants groups moving into South Central LA. Less analyzed is why the beating of Rodney King occurred in the first place.
To those who lived in South Central LA, police brutality was no aberration. What was unique about this case was the stark evidence of what took place every day: police beatings, police shootings, massive unwarranted raids of residential neighborhoods. The outcome of the trial was the tipping point, a reminder that the LA government and court system failed to prevent violence or punish those who perpetrate it. Within the US, compared to other police departments in the largest cities, the LAPD ranked highest in killing or wounding residents of its city.
This article, presented in three segments, explores why the LAPD committed so much violence towards the public it was charged to defend and protect, how officers justified their actions, and what structures were in place that prevented a cultural change. Didier Fassin’s Enforcing Order, an ethnography of French police charged with maintaining order in segregated, economically impoverished areas of the country, provides a lens for analysis of police behavior and the interaction between institutions and individuals that applies well to the LAPD of the early 1990’s.
Los Angeles: A Deteriorating Situation
Rodney King’s Los Angeles faced massive economic and social upheaval. Its demographics were changing rapidly – Korean, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Mexican immigrants were arriving into the city, and these newcomers packed into increasingly overcrowded housing, displacing primarily Black residents. By the late 80s, the Latino population had grown rapidly to comprise 40% of the city’s residents and showed no signs of slowing.
Most important was the loss of employment opportunities available nationally and in LA itself. Job polarization and wage inequality began to rise significantly, and from 1979 to 1988, those without a college education saw real wages fall dramatically. These larger forces hit South Central particularly hard, as Gooding-Williams conveys:
South Central Los Angeles, as the traditional industrial core of the city, bore the brunt of decline in manufacturing jobs, losing 70,000 high wage, stable jobs between 1978 and 1982… the black-male jobless rate in the some residential areas of South Central Los Angeles hovered around 50% [in the early 90’s]
Government policies, both national and local, exacerbated economic downturns by dismantling social welfare and safety net programs. Community Based Organizations (CBOs) were vital to the upward mobility of disadvantaged minority youth in South Central, but in 1980, when Reagan became president, government funding for CBOs was slashed to less than half. Social programs were instead replaced with a tightening criminal justice system. Policies like California’s three-strike rule further destabilized low income neighborhoods in LA, causing young black men to be facing jail, prison, probation or parole at a rate of more than one in three on any day.
High incarceration rates and loss of high-wage jobs contributed to the rise of drug smuggling and gang activity in South Central. Cocaine began flowing from Colombia through Southern California to Los Angeles in 1982, and as Southern California became oversaturated with the drug, crack cocaine was created and manufactured to reach a less wealthy market. Gangs fought over the distribution of crack and for territorial control, and by 1989, Los Angeles had twice the national average violent crime rate, and by 2000, Los Angeles would have unsolved murders in the multiple thousands, with 75 percent being gang-related.
The growing instability in LA, caused by demographic change, economic restructuring, harmful government policies, and rise of drug and gang activity, was the environment the LAPD were required to operate in. These dire circumstances helped justify a state of exceptional violence towards the public. And the Los Angeles city government could do little to stop them.
The City and the Police Force
From 1950 to 1973, mayors and council members had been deferential to the LAPD, despite allegations of misconduct and police brutality. Police commissioners, appointed by the City Council to oversee the LAPD, rarely interfered or investigated with the internal affairs of the department.
Then, in 1973, Los Angeles’ first black mayor was elected by a multiracial coalition, providing hope for those who wanted to see the LAPD challenged. Initially, Mayor Tom Bradley and his staff direct grappled with the Department and Bradley gained ground in reducing and controlling the LAPD’s expenditures, which was 20% – 22% of the city’s budget throughout the 70’s.
However, Bradley’s promise to bring accountability to the LAPD was hampered by his own gubernatorial ambitions. Bradley ran for Governor of California in 1982 and 1986, and during state and local elections, police unions campaigned against him and aided his opponents. In his twenty-year reign as Los Angeles Mayor, Bradley was unable to stem the tide of police shootings, and the City of Los Angeles paid millions of taxpayer’s dollars to settle with citizens who were abused by the LAPD. In 1990, $11.1 million was paid in excess force lawsuit settlements, and in 1991, over $14.5 million was paid.
In 1992, the commission appointed to investigate the LAPD after the beating of Rodney King also made a scathing indictment of Tom Bradley. Despite the hopes of his constituents, Bradley had been unable to shake the power of the LAPD in the city.
Eileen Chen is an undergraduate student studying Economics and History at the University of Virginia.