Within days, television viewers around the world had seen the shocking images on an amateur video and were debating the issue of police violence. The scenes that started the uproar lasted only two minutes, but they made an indelible impression. The central character is a young black man, stopped for speeding on March 3 in a Los Angeles suburb and shot by police with a 50,000-volt stun gun as he steps out of his car. Viewers saw three white, uniformed officers kick, punch and club Rodney King more than 50 times as 11 of their colleagues looked on. Then, last week, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) released a tape recording of laughter over the police radio as an officer called for an ambulance to take King to a hospital, and computerized messages that portrayed police as laughing off the incident.
As stunned officials attempted to deal with the outrage, doctors were treating King for multiple skull fractures, nerve damage, a
crushed cheekbone, a broken ankle and possible brain damage. And the scenes of naked brutality captured by plumbing supplier George Holliday, who was trying out a newly purchased video camera, had quick results: the LAPD suspended and laid charges of assault with a deadly weapon against four officers. The incident also brought disturbing claims that King’s beating was just one example of increasingly violent and racist police behavior across the United States.
Outrage over the episode, and demands for the resignation of Police Chief Daryl Gates, grew last week. While FBI agents investigated the affair, the justice department in Washington announced that they would examine
racial and geographic patterns in the 15,000 complaints of police brutality filed with the federal government during the past six years.
Other evidence of brutality by American police officers surfaced last week. In New York City, five officers were charged with the February choking death of a handcuffed car-robbery suspect. In another New York incident, two officers face allegations that they beat a handcuffed teenager—who is deaf and who cannot speak—because he would not answer their questions. And in Memphis, a jury was deliberating the case of three sheriff’s deputies charged with beating and kicking a drug suspect to death.
In Los Angeles, King’s beating led to demands for reform of the LAPD, while the city’s mayor, Tom Bradley, himself a former police officer, backed protesters’ demands for Gates’s resignation. Said John Mack, president of the Los Angeles branch of the black civil rights organization the Urban League: “The department is out of control.” But Gates insisted that the incident involving King was an isolated case and refused to resign.
Critics of the LAPD said that although Holliday’s videotape proved that police used excessive force, the computer messages showed
that brutality was accepted as almost normal on the force.
In one exchange, the supervising officer at the scene informed headquarters of a “big-time use of force.” Another officer typed out “Oops” in a message to a squad car that was not at the scene, adding: “I haven’t beaten anyone this bad in a long time.”
The chilling conversations fuelled the demands for Gates’s resignation. Since his appointment as head of the 8,300-member force in 1978,
Gates has frequently caused controversy. On one occasion, he criticized Hispanic police officers for being “lazy.” In the wake of King’s beating, Gates infuriated civil rights advocates by offering a weak apology. Noting that King had a previous conviction for armed robbery,
Gates said of the beating that “perhaps this will be the vehicle to move him down the road to a good life.”
Meanwhile, the ugly incident in Los Angeles focused attention on claims that police officers often use unnecessary violence. Last year, the city of Los Angeles paid more than $8 million in damages to victims of excessive force. Justice
officials say that their civil rights division investigates 2,000 complaints of police brutality at any one time. That has led to only 45 convictions in the past three years. In Canada, the Ontario Office of the Public Complaints Commissioner handled 671 cases against the To-
ronto police in 1989, the most recent year for which figures are available. About 22 per cent of the complaints involved physical assault or excessive force. Twentythree of the cases led to disciI plinary action against the officer involved. Across the country, Canadians lodged almost 3,000 complaints against the RCMP last year.
According to some experts on police work, police violence grows in situations where hostility exists between the police and minority groups. Said Stanley Sheinbaum, a magazine publisher who was recently appointed to the five-member police commission that oversees the LAPD: “When the community itself perceives the police as an enemy, then the police themselves become more trigger-happy.” Now, the grim, videotaped record of Rodney King’s encounter with the police may serve as a catalyst for imposing restraint on any officers who act as if they are above the law.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.