THE RODNEY KING INCIDENT According to Whitman (1993): “Well before he heard the first siren, Rodney King knew he never should have slipped that key into the ignition. They had been having so much fun, he and his buddies Bryant Allen and Freddie Helms, just kicking back, sipping some inexpensive 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor at the local park as they jawed and laughed while the daylight ebbed away. Afterward, they had stood in front of Allen’s mom’s house trying to croon a few tunes. King wasn’t much of a singer but, when he switched to rapping, his buddies felt he was almost in a groove. And then it was after midnight, and suddenly King was driving his car, flying down the highway at 80 miles per hour, the radio blaring, he and Allen singing again, and then there it was–the flashing light atop the highway patrol car bouncing off his rearview mirror, filling his car with a red light that King had learned to dread. King knew, as he later testified, that he was drunk and that if the police caught him speeding he’d soon be back in prison for violating parole” (Whitman, 1993, pp. 34-57). It is recommended that the student writing on this topic consider the mindset of Rodney King and why he fought being detained by the officers. In the middle of the night of March 3, 1991, George William Holiday taped the encounter between Rodney King and several officers. This was, according to some, one of the most famous images in modern American history. The tape, however, was edited before it was broadcast. Wilson said, “Gone were the few seconds in which King, at the start of the episode, charged at the officers. What views saw was only officers beating a crouching King with metal batons. And the absence of pictures of King’s charge led many people to believe that King was simply and gratuitously the victim of police torture. In fact, as the records show, he was very drunk, had led officers on a wild chase through the streets, had refused to submit to orders to lie down, had resisted two electric charges from a Taser, and had thrown off officers who tried to subdue him” (Wilson, 1998, pp. 34). Over 50 blows were directed at Rodney King, a black man (pp. 34). Of those, 31 blows struck him (pp. 34). It is recommended that the student writing on this topic pay particular attention to the way the media’s involvement worsened an already bad situation. According to Wilson (1998), the Rodney King riot in 1992 had as its immediate cause public beliefs concerning police behavior (Wilson, 1998, pp. 34). He stated, “After the acquittal of officers accused of beating Rodney King, there erupted the nation’s most deadly urban riot in over a century. Fifty-four people were killed, over eight hundred buildings were destroyed, and thousands more were damaged or looted” (pp. 34). He posits that profound differences of opinion remain concerning whether the King beating justified such a tumultuous response (pp. 34). The student should consider the different types of responses to the Rodney King incident and the reason for them. Los Angeles is a city founded by white, middle-class progressives that wanted clean, efficient government, which was not contaminated by party politics. They put a charter in place that made elections nonpartisan. They also restricted how much political patronage can be handed out. Authority was conferred over a variety of government institutions to include the police and part-time citizen commissions. Consequently, because of the commissions and the great powers of the city council, the mayor of Los Angeles is weak (Wilson, 1998, pp. 34). Proposition 13 was passed in 1978 (Wilson, 1998, pp. 34). Wilson (1998) stated, “By cutting property taxes, restricting the rate at which they could be increased, and requiring a two-thirds majority before voters could approve in subsequent elections any new expenditure, Proposition 13 sharply reduced the chance that the LAPD could get much money. As a result, the police suffered from too few officers, police cars that were driven until their axles fell off, a communications system that was hopelessly inadequate, a crime lab that began to deteriorate, and station houses that were ramshackle or worse. In 1960, the city had reported to it three violent crimes for every LAPD officer. By 1990, there were ten such crimes for every officer. The ‘thin blue line’ of the LAPD was now a heavily overworked, poorly equipped line. When the Rodney King riots broke out, the officers in the nearest station did not have a television set with which to watch what virtually every other Angeleno was seeing. To make matters worse, Chief Daryl Gates and Mayor Tom Bradley were not on speaking terms. In a different city, the mayor would have fired a chief whom he did not like. In Los Angeles, again, that was not possible” (Wilson, 1998, pp. 34). The student should consider how history has made Los Angeles the city it is. Texeira (1995) stated, “The police, acting as an agent of state control, has nurtured and perpetuated racial oppression through its repressive containment of internally colonized African American communities. African Americans are forced to live in a type of internal US colony by societal oppression and attitudes that have changed little since the early days of the slave codes. Experiences involving the LAPD and Sheriff’s Dept substantiate this view. Ex-detective Mark Fuhrman and the brutal attack on Rodney King epitomize the institutional racism and colonial thinking in modern policing” (Texeira, 1995, pp. 235). Edgerton posits that the televised beating of Rodney King, the battering of Reginald Denny and the incendiary rioting that followed are unforgettable images, which are nearly as vivid as the assassination of John F. Kennedy. During the riot, fires spread from South Central Los Angeles to Koreatown, Hollywood, and the fringes of the affluent and mostly white Westside. He stated, “The country’s second-largest city was engulfed in fear and rage, and the police were nowhere to be seen” (Edgerton, 1998, pp. 52). The student should consider the use of media in the Rodney King incident. Edgerton (1998) suggested that Cannon helps the reader to understand the tensions that erupted after the beating of Rodney King. Most of the American public do not know that King charged at Officer Powell, because the TV stations that showed the videotape deleted the first 13 seconds of the tape when the charge took place (Edgerton, 1998, pp. 52). Edgerton stated, “Four LAPD officers were charged in the King beating, but, in a decision that defies explanation, instead of their being tried by a racially mixed jury in downtown Los Angeles, a change of venue was granted : to virtually all-white, and famously pro-police, Simi Valley. Their acquittal was now a foregone conclusion, and yet neither the city nor the LAPD took any steps to prepare for a riot. The not-guilty verdicts were announced at 3:15 P. M. on April 29, 1992. An hour later, there began the worst riot in U. S. history since the end of the Civil War. Before it ended, five terrible days later, 54 people had been killed and 2,300 injured, and 862 building had been burned. In all, the damage was estimated at $900 million. As the mobs randomly attacked white, Latino, and Asian motorists, the few police in the area were ordered to retreat to a staging area, leaving the rioters free to burn, pillage, and kill” (Edgerton, 1998, pp. 52). The student should consider how violence breeds violence hatred and rage. According to Johnson (1995), policing in America is dangerous and difficult work. He suggests that is it is often a convenient scapegoat for social ills. Police brutality is frequently cited by community and national leaders as a major contributing factor in civil unrest. Johnson (1995) posits that the Rodney King incident “clearly demonstrates the potentially explosive connection between race and police action. The aftermath of such incidents generally assumes a similar pattern. Special commissions prepare reports attempting to isolate options that communities and police departments might take to improve police-community relations” (Johnson, 1995, pp. 26). The student should consider how police departments nationally should deal with such impropriety as police brutality. After the Rodney King incident, a nationwide initiative was undertaken by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP held hearing in six cities, which brought together Community leaders and police officials in frank and open discussions of the issues surrounding race and policing. The cities in which the meetings were held were Norfolk, Miami, Los Angeles, Houston, St. Louis, and Indianapolis (Johnson, 1995, pp. 26). It was conceded by the author that society has come to ” increasingly, and mistakenly, look to the police to solve the complex problems of our times. These problems cannot be solved by policing alone” (Johnson, 1995, pp. 26).
“Beyond the Rodney King Story” defines 10 common, but often-unspoken, police cultural beliefs that impede progress in relations between the police and the community. There are many suggestions for improving relations between minority groups and the police. More police departments should be encouraged to adopt community-policing strategies. Police departments should create new means of evaluating the performance of officers. They should also explore new options in recruiting minority personnel, while raising their educational standards (Johnson, 1995, pp. 26). The student should consider cultural beliefs and the role they play in policing. Johnson stated, “The authors [of 'Beyond the Rodney King Story'] provide functional answers to difficult questions relating to racism, police brutality, and the general lack of trust between some minority groups and police departments. ‘Beyond the Rodney King Story’ is a highly relevant and wide-ranging presentation that should be read carefully by both police and community leaders” (Johnson, 1995, pp. 26). Witkin and his colleagues (1992) stated, “For America’s police officers, the status quo simply won’t do anymore. Haunted by the brutal video images of Rodney King and the flickering flames of south-central Los Angeles, by frightening violent-crime rates and intractable drug crisis, cops are under tremendous pressure to accelerate reforms that have been gathering steam since the mid-’80s. Over time, the reform drive could revolutionize police work and substantially improve the often strained relations between cops and the communities they serve” (Witkin, et al, 1992, pp. 27-35). Kansas City Police Chief Steven Bishop stated, “The predicate for change in the 1990s is the Rodney King incident. People want a more active role in saying how they want to be policed” (Witkin, et al, 1992, pp. 27-35). The student should consider the sociology of today’s citizen. According to Witkin and his colleagues (1992), researchers argue persuasively that fighting fear is as important to stabilizing communities as is fighting serious crimes. They posit that the real impetus for change comes from a new generation of better-educated police leader that are willing to challenge the conventional wisdom (Witkin, et al, 1992, pp. 27-35). ” frustrations have led progressive police executives to a broader set of conclusions: that crime has many complex causes and that police departments cannot keep the streets safe by themselves. If crime is to be controlled, police must reach out to other local institutions, and indeed to the broader community at large, and create partnerships. That thinking is responsible for the most radical and controversial innovations sweeping the field these days–so-called community-oriented policing. The basics are these: Police must form community alliances to focus on prevention, addressing the causes and circumstances leading to crime, rather than careening from incident to incident” (Witkin, et al, 1992, pp. 27-35). “Despite the pressures to change, potent obstacles remain. A rigid, traditional police culture continues to dominate some departments, and police unions sometimes resist new ideas as well. Innovation may offend special interest, such as wealthy neighborhoods opposed to diversion of manpower to higher-crime areas. Budgets are tight, and new ideas like the creation of units devoted to handling repeat offenders cost money” (Witkin, et al, 1992, pp. 27-35). Kansas City police officer Walt Mulloy said, “Police work has been forever changed into two phases–before Rodney King and after Rodney King” (Witkin, et al, 1992, pp. 27-35). According to Dinse and Sheehan (1998): “Police Commissioner Jesse A. Brewer requested the help of the US Military Academy at West Point, NY, for the development of a leadership training for the officers of the Los Angeles Dept in 1992. This was in response to the recommendation of the commission which investigated the Rodney King incident and Los Angeles riots. The West Point Leadership and Command Program was created which allowed the officers to develop competence and character” (Dinse; Sheehan, 1998, pp. 18). Federal district judge, Judge John G. Davies received much criticism for former police officer Stacey Koon’s light sentencing in the Rodney King beating case, because his 30-month sentence was lower than the federal guidelines. According to Cox (1996): “The US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit wanted him to impose much more prison time, but the US Supreme Court sided with Davies and with judicial discretion” (Cox, 1996, pp. A10). The student should consider the following as a proposal or an alternative to how a positive outcome for the victim could have been achieved through a new policy implemented in the police department for communications. The officers involved in the Rodney King incident should have had better training and more police-community relations. Yes, King was intoxicated and they were having trouble catching him and subduing him, but their acts of brutal force were totally unnecessary. The officers should have immediately been fired from the job, no ifs, ands or buts. Strict discipline should always be enforced immediately, and the officers involved should be made aware from the onset of their professions as police officers that this type of behavior is unacceptable and will never be tolerated. The days of street justice administered by cops and slaps on the wrist for offending officers is totally inappropriate in the 1990s and beyond. Police training should concentrate equally, if not more, on how to talk to civilians that how to use the baton as a weapon. The student should consider the following as a proposal or an alternative to how a positive outcome for the victim could have been achieved through a new policy implemented in the police departments. The departments should flag those potential “bad cops” and create an intensive training course to enhance the officer’s communications skills. Communication is not just about words but about tone, pitch, distance, and body language as well. There are many barriers to communication such as leather gloves or mirrored sunglasses, which can seem as intimidating to the public. All police officers need to learn such techniques as supportive listening, eye contact and frequent nodding. By listening to what the citizen says, the officer opens more avenues for handling the situation. Officers should begin traffic stops by first introducing themselves. They should then immediately tell the motorist why he or she was stopped. The student should consider the following as a proposal or an alternative to how a positive outcome for the victim could have been achieved through a new policy implemented in the courts, which would not allow a change in venue if the outcome would be biased by the change. After all, a racially mixed jury is more appropriate than one that is mostly of one race. The trial of the officers involved should not been given a change of venue to a “white” community. This stacked the cards in the favor of those officers getting a lessor sentence or getting off completely. Racism is something that should never be tolerated, and making it easy for officers to get off easily is not an option. The sentencing is also a factor the student should consider, since those punished got off with less than the federal guidelines. BIBLIOGRAPHY Cox, Gail Diane. (1996), Olympian in temperament and sport; judge took flak for Stacey Koon’s light sentence, but he prevailed on appeal, as usual, The National Law Journal, August 5, 1996 v18 n49 pA10. Dinse, Charles F.; Sheehan, Kathleen. (1998, January), Competence and character: developing leaders in the LAPD, (Los Angeles Police Department), The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Jan 1998 v67 n1 pp. 18(6). Edgerton, Robert B. (1998, April 20), Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD, (book reviews), National Review, Vol. 50, pp. 52(2). Johnson, Timothy J. (1995, August), Beyond the Rodney King Story: An Investigation of Police Conduct in Minority Communities, (book reviews), The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, v64 n8 pp. 26(1). Texeira, Mary Thierry. (1995, Winter), Policing the internally colonized: slavery, Rodney King, Mark Fuhrman and beyond, The Western Journal of Black Studies, v19 n4 pp. 235(9). Whitman, David (1993, May 31), The untold story of the LA riot, U.S. News & World Report, pp. 34-57. Wilson, James Q. (1998, July 17), The closing of the American city, (social consequences of racial discrimination), Current, pp. 34(6). Witkin, Gordon; Tharp, Mike; Arrarte, Anne. (1992, May 11), What the LAPD ought to try, U.S.News & World Report, pp. 27-35.