Twenty five years after the Rodney King riots, American policing hasn’t come far enough

Racism and the fire next time.
Racism and the fire next time.
Image: Reuters/Lee Celano
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On the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, video footage from those April days easily brings to mind a war zone, where buildings are burned-out shells and tanks are on the streets instead of cars. But many of the images and soundbites from that time also seem quite familiar to anyone following national news in today’s United States.

The riots—sparked on April 29, 1992 by outrage over the acquittal of four officers who had brutally beaten black motorist Rodney King a year earlier—were decades in the making, as the city systematically and routinely abused and neglected its African-American citizens.

The protest chants of 1992 echo what we hear on the streets today, over, and over—“No Justice! No Peace!”—after each new killing of an unarmed black person by police. And just as familiar is the reaction of those in authority. “Aberration” was the word used by LAPD chief Daryl Gates to describe the King beating, an effort to deflect criticism of a broken system of policing. That’s mirrored in the “bad apple” rhetoric US attorney general Jeff Sessions has used to blame instances of police brutality only on individual officers.

The overall dynamic remains largely the same: Police abuse caught on tape appears to bring just as little perceived justice now as it did more than 25 years ago, with that landmark caught-on-video moment, captured by a plumber with a new camcorder across the street and played on endless loop by TV news.  

A quarter-century later, the world has changed—particularly with technology that allows virtually any bystander to document police encounters with a moment’s notice. The conversation surrounding police brutality has become an important part of the national political discourse. Police forces, generally more diverse, aren’t the same fiefdoms they used to be, with historically troubled departments monitored by civilian groups and the federal government.

“Policing changed a lot since the Rodney King incident, some of that because of the incident and much of it because policing was changing anyway,” said Barry Friedman, director of New York University’s Policing Project and author of the book “Unwarranted: Policing Without Permission.” But, he added, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

“We, unfortunately, are seeing the exact same incidents play out, time and time again,” said Chris Burbank, the former police chief in Salt Lake City, Utah and director of law-enforcement engagement with the Center for Policing Equity. “We are still having the same discussion about race.” 

So how has policing in America actually changed since Rodney King was pulled over by four officers, and repeatedly kicked and pummeled with batons and shocked with a stun gun? Have city departments such as the LAPD—a force that had been making mass arrests by conducting “sweeps” in minority neighborhoods to target gang violence and then refused to step in when the city was burning—changed since 1992? 

Newer techniques remain deadly

One of several documentaries coming out to mark the riots’ anniversary, John Ridley’s Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 traces the complex chain of events that led to the explosion of violence.

One telling detail shows how even a move away from a dangerous technique led to bad outcomes. In the 1980s, the LAPD banned chokeholds, which were used to subdue suspects by cutting off the flow of blood to the brain. That  also often led to their deaths. During the trial of the officers who beat King, Stacey Koon, a sergeant who was among those charged, said he didn’t want to use the chokehold because “in LA, the chokehold was associated with the deaths of blacks.” Instead, the officers used a stun gun, which had little effect, and PR-24s, metal batons that are intended to provide some separation between the officers and the suspect. The effect was 11 bone fractures suffered by King, among other injuries.

Since then, the batons have become a somewhat “antiquated” weapon, says Burbank. And stun guns, initially praised and deployed as life-saving devices, have become more technologically advanced and widely used. (They’ve also become controversial in their own right, misused by officers and resulting in hundreds of deaths).

But the chokehold, officially banned by most major police departments, continues to be used. The technique is what killed Eric Garner, a black man who was selling loose cigarettes in Staten Island in New York in 2014. His words, “I can’t breathe,” gave protesters against police violence a haunting new slogan.

Still, most of the incidents we talk about today when we discuss police brutality are shootings—always meant to be the last resort in a violent encounter. We currently have no reliable way of knowing whether deadly shootings have increased or decreased over the past several decades—there simply is no good national data (numbers from the FBI suggests they have spiked in recent years, but it is so patchy that it’s hard to rely on). What we do know for certain, from studies of the use of deadly force in recent years, is that it is used disproportionately against people of color.

The failed promise of video, thus far

Let it Fall and LA 92, another new documentary, show protesters lamenting the fact that the perpetrators of violence against black people—including King and Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old girl shot in the back of the head by a Korean shopkeeper after an altercation—escape responsibility even when the act is caught on tape.

In LA 92, congresswoman Maxine Waters of Los Angeles is seen during a press conference, where she puts it simply:  “Young black males in my district feel like if you could get no conviction [with the footage], there can be no justice in America.”  

Fast forward 25 years: Video is everywhere, documenting nearly every moment of our lives. The ubiquity of the technology tells several different stories about police accountability.

The cases of Garner or Tamir Rice—a 12-year-old carrying a pellet gun who was shot by police in Cleveland, Ohio—suggest that the way cops behave and are punished has not changed that much since the King trial. Both deaths were captured on video, and in both cases, officers avoided serious consequences in criminal court. “I don’t think it has changed dramatically, the level of force,” Burbank said, referring to the influence of video.

What has changed, he says, is that some of these gruesome clips have helped advance the discussion on police violence, and led to the gradual introduction of solutions such as body cameras for police, which he thinks are “steps in the right direction.”

“The presumption is that when you put a camera in place, it affects behavior. And that’s not a crazy presumption” said Friedman.

In theory, body cameras are also a useful tool to make officers more accountable. They can become powerful evidence in court, where instead of only relying on an officer’s word, footage from cameras can show how cops try to cover up their faults . On the other hand, body cams are often misused by officers, and regulations that allow them to review the footage before filing their police reports become counterproductive.

Police accountability is now at risk

We don’t have a way of knowing whether police officers in the US are held accountable by the criminal-justice system more than they were in the past. Like with information on police shootings, there is simply no good data at the national level.

There some hints, however. Many of the controversial cases in recent years have either resulted in no indictment or acquittal for the accused officers. A 2014 New York Daily News investigation showed that out of 179 killings by on-duty NYPD officers over 15 years, only three resulted in indictments.  

There was one tangible, wide-reaching reform effort to come out of the Rodney King incident and its aftermath: oversight by the federal government. Following the 1991-1992 events, congressional Democrats tried to introduce reform that would give the US Department of Justice authority to monitor police departments. Although these initial efforts failed, in 1994, under president Bill Clinton, this idea became part of a massive crime bill and was eventually signed into law. This led to 70 investigations into local law-enforcement agencies, and multiple court-mandated consent-decree agreements.

The troubled LAPD itself entered into a consent decree, a long and arduous process that lasted over a decade, starting in 2001, and transformed the police department.

Just as with body cameras, however, consent decrees are far from a complete cure. In fact, results are clearly mixed. But reformers emphasize their importance, especially as the entire premise of the consent-decree concept is threatened by a Trump administration review.

The national conversation shifts again

The conversation about policing has undoubtedly changed since the King beating and the LA riots. Documenting abuses by video, and the activism of groups such as Black Lives Matter have brought increased attention to the racial disparities in police abuse. News organizations are systematically counting those killed by police. Talk of reform is now an inextricable part of the national discussion about policing.

On the federal level, this is changing under the Trump administration. Sessions’s Justice Department has been diverting attention from problems with policing—a concern the Obama administration doubled down on—to focus on an imagined crime wave described as ravaging the nation.

And that’s part of a broader problem, Friedman said. “We have to keep re-learning the lesson, it goes cyclically, he said. We’re currently in the “pushback” phase. “I don’t know where the current cycle will take us.”

The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 triggered weeks of unrest and a more robust discussion about reform. Before that, the last time the conversation about policing substantially changed was in the 1960s, Friedman said. The King events were a “burst” in this cyclical narrative. But their impact was dulled amid the let’s-get-tough political push of first the War on Drugs and then the War on Terror. “The problem is that there’s always this pushback,” he said. “And we’ve had a very hard time finding equilibrium.”

Burbank, with decades of policing experience, says that the fault for the dysfunction lies precisely in how we talk about reform. Instead of addressing what led to a shooting, we talk mostly about the exact moment of when the bullet hit the body. Not the circumstances that brought a citizen into contact with the police.

“We get to the end, we have two human beings, a police officer, who is now in the mode of ‘I gotta watch everybody because everyone’s out to kill me’ and a man of color who believes that the police are out to get him…And then we want this encounter to go really well.” he said. “We need to look holistically at the system, and not just at the end product.”

It’s a criminal-justice system, as well as a society as a whole, he says, that remains riddled with racial bias, on every level.