Legacy of Rodney King, 10 Years Later

It was 10 years ago today that Rodney King was beaten in what became an enduring symbol of police brutality and a flashpoint for racial tensions.

It also proved to be the first in a series of blows that have shattered the reputation of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Mere mention of the 1991 beating causes those in power to cringe as they recall the morning the city awoke to a chilling video of the black motorist being clubbed and kicked over and over by four white police officers as he writhed in agony on the ground.

The video, made by an onlooker, shocked the public and led Police Chief Daryl Gates to condemn the officers' actions.

But that was just the beginning. There would be three trials — one of them ending in the conviction of two officers — and the worst race riot Los Angeles had ever seen. When the smoke cleared on May 2, 1992, 55 people were dead and 2,383 were injured. Damage was put at $1 billion.

Gates was driven from the LAPD. Commissions were empaneled and made wide-ranging recommendations for reform.

‘Grim Picture for the LAPD’

Yet in the years to come, reform efforts would be overshadowed by events that would further damage the police force whose reputation for integrity and excellence was burnished by TV shows like Dragnet and Adam-12.

The King beating was followed by criticism of how police handled the 1992 riots and later the O.J. Simpson case. And now, the department is struggling with a corruption scandal in its Rampart division that has led to more than 100 convictions being overturned.

"Rodney King was about police abuse, O.J. was about police incompetence, and Rampart is about police corruption. That's a pretty grim picture for the LAPD," said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola University Law School professor. "What Rodney King taught us is you can't ignore the problems and hope they will go away."

District Attorney Steve Cooley, who was elected in November and whose office is prosecuting the Rampart corruption cases, said morale on the LAPD has been devastated.

"People who worked all their lives for this department are leaving," he said. "Right now they're in the hurt locker. Healing takes a long time. Law enforcement needs esprit de corps and pride. Something will have to happen to make them proud again. Maybe it will be some effective reforms."

Commission Brought Reforms

After the King beating, a commission headed by former Secretary of State Warren Christopher was assembled to come up with reforms. Some were implemented, some were not.

Christopher said recently that the report had significant results in strengthening the city's civilian police commission, limiting the police chief's term and creating the office of inspector general.

But he said there is still a need for better training, regular psychological testing of officers and a system of tracking citizen complaints.

More Black Eyes

In any case, the Simpson murder trial in 1995 would bring new disrepute on the department. The LAPD was accused of mishandling scientific evidence and was criticized over Detective Mark Fuhrman, who eventually admitted committing perjury in denying he used racial slurs. In an embarrassment for the police force and the district attorney's office, the case ended in the former football star's acquittal.

Then, last year, the LAPD was hit with another scandal when officers in the department's Rampart division, a gang-infested neighborhood, were accused of planting evidence, lying under oath, even shooting unarmed suspects.

Five officers have been charged. One was acquitted, the convictions of three were overturned, and the fifth is awaiting trial on attempted murder charges.

"The King incident was a spontaneous reaction to a middle-of-the-night situation. I think Rampart is worse," said Lou Cannon, author of the book Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD. "What went on in Rampart was a lot more cold-blooded. There was an element of malevolence, of premeditation and planning."

Federal Oversight

Recently the city agreed to federal oversight of the LAPD to try to end racial profiling and brutality. The new district attorney has also reinstated a program in which a prosecutor and investigator rush to the scene of any officer-involved shooting to see if charges are warranted.

Gates, who resigned as chief after the Christopher Commission report detailed brutality, racism and poor management in the LAPD, blamed the panel and later reform efforts by outsiders for the department's current low morale.

"People should stop meddling in the department's affairs and allow it to rebuild itself," Gates said. "You have police officers doing a great job out there day in and day out. They come home at night and read they have to reform the department. They need to feel good about themselves, and they just don't."