Everyone has seen the Rodney King videotape: two white police officers beating a black suspect with metal batons. The images electrified the nation. The events that followed tore us apart, opening painful wounds that have yet to heal. But public perception of the incident was influenced as much by media coverage and the attitude of local officials as by the actual facts of the case itself.
The two Los Angeles police officers who beat King, another cop who kicked him, and the sergeant who commanded all three, were put on trial and acquitted. In response, Los Angeles erupted in a riot that claimed 53 lives and cost more than $800 million in property damage. The four policemen were then retried under federal law. Two of them, Laurence Powell and Sgt. Stacey Koon, were convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison.
Washington Post reporter, Lou Cannon, has done a comprehensive, objective analysis of the whole affair in Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD. His findings will anger both the politically correct, multi-cultural left, and conservative supporters of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).
He argues that what we think we saw on TV gave a misleading impression of what actually happened.
“The mythology of the King incident derives almost entirely from the edited version of the videotape,” Cannon writes. “That version begins more than halfway through an incident in which Stacey Koon tried to take King into custody without hurting him. This fact, in itself, sets the incident apart from numerous other cases of proven police brutality in which victims were hit, choked, or shot without provocation.”
Rodney King was not a career criminal. He was a marginally employed blue-collar worker addicted to alcohol. He had a single prior felony conviction, incurred while he was drunk.
On March 2, 1991, after drinking heavily with two friends, he was driving along a freeway at speeds of up to 115 m.p.h. when two California Highway Patrol officers tried to pull him over. He led them on a 7.8-mile, high-speed chase on the highway and surface streets, disregarding their sirens and flashing lights.
When King finally stopped, he ignored police orders to lie prone on the ground, commands with which his two passengers complied.
Because it was now LAPD jurisdiction, Koon took charge. First, he had four LAPD officers jump King, who pushed them off with surprising ease. Then Koon shot the suspect twice with a laser gun, but its electric shocks didn't have the desired effect of pacifying him. King's almost superhuman resistance to these tactics led the officers to believe he was high on the drug PCP, an assumption that subsequent tests failed to verify.
Koon ordered Powell and a LAPD rookie officer, Timothy Wind, to subdue King with their metal batons. It is at this point that the famed 81-second Holiday videotape begins, but Cannon points out that all the TV stations across the nation that aired the tape showed an edited 68-second version. What the media had edited out was blurry footage in which King is seen charging Officer Powell, dispelling the impression created by the rest of the tape that he was merely a passive victim.
‘The mythology of the King incident derives almost entirely from the edited version of the videotape.’
Cannon doesn't believe this 13-second deletion was the result of an anti-police media conspiracy. The news editors who first aired it considered the missing section to be technically beneath their station's standards.
The videotape shows King being struck 56 times. Powell delivered 40 blows and Wind 16, but Cannon concludes that Powell was incompetent, not a sadist. He had failed a baton test back at the station house only several hours before. In a well-run police department, he would have immediately been taken off the streets and assigned to a desk.
“Powell hits King over and over again not because Powell is vicious but because he is inept,” Cannon observes. “A properly trained officer would have flattened King. What the videotape shows is not street justice, but the horrendous violence that occurs when training and tactics fail.”
Cannon finds that many of the use-of-force techniques employed by other police departments weren't taught to LAPD officers.
“Neither the prosecution nor the defense in subsequent trials wanted to dwell on the awful possibility that LAPD officers are too poorly trained and too poorly equipped to take physically powerful and combative drunks into custody without beating them into submission,”
Cannon writes, “Far from being an aberration, the Rodney King incident was an inevitability—a systems failure, the result of a breakdown in which political leaders, the police chief, and senior officers ignored what was happening in the field.”
To civil rights groups, the videotape of the beating was proof of systematic abuse of minority suspects by the LAPD, and they used the incident to organize public opinion to effect long-needed reforms, like increased civilian control and community policing.
Unfortunately, the media told only the civil rights groups' version of the story. The evidence presented in first trial, which argued otherwise, was ignored. Because of this, when verdicts favorable to the officers were handed down, everyone was shocked.
“The King beating was the product of official negligence, and the officers became scapegoats for a system that allowed resistant suspects to be beaten into submission with metal batons,” Cannon concludes. “Had the incident been seen as the inevitable result of a flawed policy … the chain of events that culminated in the riots might have unfolded differently.”
Cannon believes that second trial of the officers was, in effect, double jeopardy, and that the federal government had caved-in to political pressure. He also wonders if the jury at that trial was so scared of another riot that they felt they had to convict someone.
The whole chain of events reveals the dangers of allowing the media to be prosecutor, judge, and jury. This, combined with bureaucratic cover-up and lying, prevented justice from being done. Official Negligence sets the record straight.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.