Below is the final segment of a three part series examining the history of police brutality in Los Angeles. This series was originally a paper submitted for the Sociology of Power and Authority class taught by Isaac Ariail Reed at University of Virginia. The first two segments tracked the inner workings of the LAPD, its corruption and targeting of minorities, and power within LA from the 1950s through the 1980s. This segment picks up with the beating of Rodney King.
On March 3rd 1991, after a high speed car chase, four LAPD officers brutally beat Rodney King under the direction and gaze of their peers. Sergeant Koon vividly describes the night in his memoir, justifying each blow one action at a time. Ultimately, the defense made its case for the four officers in the same way: by cutting up and slowing down sections of the tape that documented the night, explaining single frames.
Fassin notes that police departments justify violence to outside parties with three elements. First, in-depth descriptions of the specific context of the case is provided, often in an alarmist manner, and “what might be intolerable in another context [becomes] acceptable here, given the local situation where anything is possible.” Second, departments describe the individual qualities of each officer, emphasize their devotion to duty and desire for justice, and thereby portray acts of violence as “dedication and fellowship” to their position. Finally, the actual damage inflicted onto the victim is minimized.
Through their breakdown of each blow, Koon and the defense used these three elements to legitimize brutality. Koon first emphasizes that in the few weeks before the beating, two police officers had been shot and killed through “carelessness in dealing with felony suspects” and the LAPD had been “reminded of these incidents repeatedly at roll call.” Extenuating circumstances justified the officers’ proactive use of force.
Then, Koon explained that each strike in the beating had been necessary to subdue King because he was an active threat to others. What appears to be “casual, unnecessary violence” on tape is actually a “premediated blow…intended to prevent King from reaching into his waistband and drawing out a concealed weapon.” Koon reports that when King rolls toward the officers, while it appears that he was trying to avoid more hits, he was actually preforming the “Folsom Roll, a technique for disarming an officer while prone on ground.”
Judith Butler summarizes Koon’s argument as such:
King’s palm turned away from his body, held above his own head is read not as self-protection but as the incipient moments of physical threat…The frozen black male body on the ground receiving blows was himself producing those blows, about to produce them, was himself the imminent threat of a blow, and therefore was himself responsible for the blows he received…According to this racist episteme, he is hit in exchange for the blows he never delivered, but which he is, by virtue of hic blackness, always about to deliver.
Because of the specific context for the situation, that officers anticipated personal harm from the Black man lying on the ground in front of them, unacceptable violence becomes acceptable police work.
Koon concludes his story by admiring the ‘professionalism’ of his officers in the face of a “monster of a guy” and playing down the damage they caused:
[I was proud] that when we had gotten to the hospital we’d found the suspect wasn’t badly injured. The emergency room examination showed that he had suffered only some bruises and minor lacerations, even though we’d had to hit him hard, repeatedly, before he’d respond to our commands to be cuffed. It was remarkable he hadn’t been hurt worse. In fact, at one point I’d even had to order the officers to cripple this guy. That was because our only alternative was to shoot him.
A year after the beating, a similar argument convinced the jury to acquit the LAPD officers in the case of Rodney King. In their eyes, for these reasons, the brutal violence caught on camera was legitimate.
When the riots exploded in South Central LA, despite the excess zeal of the LAPD on most other occasions, officers did little to contain the destruction. The night of the decision, Chief Gates attended a fundraising event several hours away in hopes of garnering support for his continued reign. Few plans were made in preparation for the riots, though they were anticipated, and fire departments were unable to obtain escorts through zones of chaos. Officers drove to local precincts to find superiors missing or unable to give direction, State and National Guardsmen arrived in LA and found no available transportation or housing.
Also egregious was the systematic disregard the police had for Korean property and business owners, who often became the target for rioters:
When the Korean Americans in South Central and Koreatown dialed 911, nothing happened. When their stores and homes were being looted and burned to the ground, they were completely left alone for three terrifying days. How betrayed they must have felt by what they had believed was a democratic system that protects it people from violence… If there was a choice between Westwood and Koreatown, it is clear that Koreatown would have to be sacrificed.
Despite the event that triggered the riots and the mismanagement of the riots themselves, the LAPD and its officers continued to deflect blame and became furious at further scrutiny. Koon maintains that he was “rightfully judged innocent,” and that any presumption otherwise “was fed by the media.” True blame lay with minority community leaders and politicians who were overzealous in responding to them. In Koon’s eyes, city policies restricting types of force led to directly to the Rodney King incident, as “when Los Angeles officials outlawed the chokehold in the early 1980’s,” a brutal beating or shooting was inevitable in confronting a suspect.
“Political cowardice that made public officials fail to take responsibility for their own actions led directly to the riots,” Koon firmly concludes, unaware of the irony of the statement. Thus, even after the beating of Rodney King, the trial, and the riots, the LAPD were unwilling to re-examine their structure, rhetoric, and practices that led to excessive violence on the force.
Twenty-five years after the LA riots, outlets proclaim the LAPD as the “national model” for police departments across the country. The LAPD undertook the most “ambitious attempts at police reform” in a United States history, and have made remarkable strides in recruiting a diverse police force. During the time of Rodney King, Whites made up 61% of the force. Now, they make up a third of the LAPD while Latinos make up 45% of the Department. A 2009 study even found that 83% of LA residents believed the LAPD are doing a “good or excellent job.”
The LAPD has taken a long and winding path to reach such a point after the beating of Rodney King. Despite the rigorous recommendations of the Christopher Commission and the resignation of Chief Gates, the city lacked political will to finance major changes and the LAPD was still resistant to reform. Only after the Rampart Scandal occurred a few years later, when 70 LAPD officers were accused of planting evidence and making false arrests, would the city experience real change:
The Justice Department gave the city two choices: face a major federal lawsuit, or enter into a formal consent decree… the consent decree finally implemented many of the recommendations that came out of the immediate aftermath of the LA riots: it instituted “discipline reports,” created a database of information about officers and supervisors to identify at-risk behavior, revised procedures on search and arrest… The department had to show 94% compliance [for each point]. Executing it all would cost this city hundreds of millions of dollars and take 12 years.
Despite these strides, tensions within the community and police continue to exist. 23% of Black residents surveyed stated the police “almost never” treat all racial and ethnic groups fairly. A 2014 shooting of a disabled Black man prompted community groups to re-highlight the Department’s kill rate. Recently, the ACLU joined a lawsuit against the LAPD concerning its transparency with public records.
Today, police shootings continue, viral videos capture their devastation, and officers are still allowed to walk away without an indictment. However, if the LAPD can evolve from a paramilitary unit under Chief Gates to the community-conscious institution it is now, progress is possible. Questioning the understanding police departments have of violence and their relationship with the public is essential for even further change.