FREE e-Newsletter
Important News - Hot Topics
Get them Now!
Randy Sutton

Randy Sutton

Randy Sutton is a 33-year law enforcement veteran, a trainer, and the national spokesman for The American Council on Public Safety. He served 10 years with the Princeton (N.J.) Police Department and 23 years with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, retiring at the rank of lieutenant. He is an author who has published multiple books on law enforcement.

Security Policy and the Cloud

Ask The Expert

Mark Rivera

FBI-CJIS Security Policy Compliance Officer

Mark Rivera, Customer Retention Manager and CJIS Security Compliance Officer with Vigilant Solutions, served for sixteen years with the Maryland State Police, retiring at the rank of First Sergeant with thirteen of those years at the supervisory and command level. He holds a Master of Science Degree in Management from The Johns Hopkins University and Secret clearance through the FBI, Baltimore.

June 2016 (2)
May 2016 (3)
April 2016 (2)
March 2016 (1)
February 2016 (3)
January 2016 (1)
December 2015 (1)
November 2015 (5)
October 2015 (1)
September 2015 (3)
August 2015 (3)
July 2015 (6)
June 2015 (3)
May 2015 (2)
April 2015 (3)
March 2015 (5)
February 2015 (1)
January 2015 (1)
December 2014 (9)
October 2014 (2)
September 2014 (2)
August 2014 (2)
July 2014 (1)
June 2014 (2)
May 2014 (2)
April 2014 (4)
March 2014 (2)
February 2014 (3)
January 2014 (3)
December 2013 (2)
November 2013 (2)
October 2013 (3)
September 2013 (5)
August 2013 (3)
July 2013 (3)
June 2013 (3)
May 2013 (4)
April 2013 (3)
March 2013 (5)
February 2013 (3)
January 2013 (3)
December 2012 (5)
November 2012 (2)
October 2012 (4)
September 2012 (2)
August 2012 (5)
July 2012 (4)
June 2012 (3)
May 2012 (5)
April 2012 (6)
March 2012 (5)
February 2012 (3)
January 2012 (5)
December 2011 (5)
November 2011 (3)
October 2011 (3)
September 2011 (3)
August 2011 (2)
July 2011 (2)
June 2011 (3)
May 2011 (4)
April 2011 (3)
March 2011 (5)
February 2011 (3)
January 2011 (3)
December 2010 (2)
November 2010 (4)
October 2010 (4)
September 2010 (5)
August 2010 (4)
July 2010 (4)
June 2010 (4)
May 2010 (4)
April 2010 (3)
March 2010 (3)
February 2010 (1)
January 2010 (3)
December 2009 (4)
November 2009 (4)
October 2009 (2)
September 2009 (3)
August 2009 (4)
July 2009 (5)
June 2009 (3)
May 2009 (5)
April 2009 (4)
March 2009 (4)
February 2009 (3)
January 2009 (2)
December 2008 (4)
November 2008 (3)
October 2008 (3)
September 2008 (3)
August 2008 (2)
July 2008 (3)
June 2008 (4)
May 2008 (5)
April 2008 (5)
March 2008 (4)
February 2008 (5)
January 2008 (3)
December 2007 (2)
November 2007 (5)
October 2007 (4)
September 2007 (4)
August 2007 (5)
July 2007 (4)
June 2007 (4)
May 2007 (5)
Patrol

How the Rodney King Riot Changed the LAPD

The LAPD is a vastly different department 20 years after four officers were acquitted of excessive force in the Rodney King case.

April 27, 2012  |  by Greg Meyer

Photo: Glynn Martin, Los Angeles Police Museum
Photo: Glynn Martin, Los Angeles Police Museum

Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riot that followed the acquittal of four Los Angeles Police Department officers who were prosecuted by the state for using excessive force on Rodney King. There was extensive looting and burning, and 53 people lost their lives.

What happened in the King incident? And in the two decades since the riot, how has the LAPD changed?

Those seeking to understand the Rodney King incident should make no mistake about Mr. King and what happened the night of March 3, 1991. The undisputed facts—established by three jury trials, two criminal and one civil—are these: King was a drunken paroled robber, briefly out of prison and by his own testimony intent on not going back. He led police on a lengthy chase, driving in excess of 100 mph. His two passengers (also African-American males) surrendered without any use of force.

During the traffic stop, King exhibited bizarre behavior. He was profusely sweating and dancing around. He pushed away four officers before the video began and before any significant force was used on him. He was not struck while handcuffed. In short, Mr. King was something more than what the media calls "a motorist." Still, he should never have been subjected to the tactics we saw on the video.

In the early 1980s, some Los Angeles officials predicted that baton beatings would result from the LAPD's policy change that banned the most widely used police tactic—the carotid control hold. Several suspects had died while in police custody during the late 1970s and early 1980s, just as they do today due to "excited delirium," regardless of the police tools or tactics used.

On May 12, 1982, the city took away the carotid hold from LAPD's use-of-force options. The baton became the primary control option. Months later, Police Chief Daryl F. Gates reported huge increases in injuries to suspects and officers but his request to modify the policy fell on deaf political ears. A huge gap in the police use-of-force continuum was created, and it was not adequately filled. The stage was set for Rodney King and thousands of less famous resisting suspects to be subjected to injury risks far higher than the carotid hold.

Some have theorized that the King beating was a frenzied, undisciplined, post-pursuit administration of curbstone justice. Had that been the case, the stereotypical scenario is that the accused officers would have run up to the car, pulled the driver out, and the beating would be on. The King incident did not occur that way.

The officers cautiously deployed, gave appropriate commands, and tried several less injurious tactics that failed before escalating to the baton. Even the baton was used in a way that both the judge and the prosecution's own use-of-force expert acknowledged was appropriate and within policy. If you look closely at the first few seconds of the video, you'll see King's right cheek bounce hard off the asphalt during his second TASER fall. He was not hit in the head with Officer Powell's baton, as is widely believed.

After the acquittal at the state trial, and after the riot, Sgt. Stacey Koon and Officer Laurence Powell were convicted of civil rights violations in federal court, and they were sent to prison.

A federal civil jury awarded King $3.8 million in tax dollars from the Los Angeles city treasury for general damages, and not a dime for punitive damages. The jury learned during the punitive-damages phase that the roots of the King beating were to be found in post-carotid-hold training that encouraged LAPD officers who encountered resisting suspects to hit them with police batons.

Most people are surprised to learn that nearly all the procedures caught on the King video tape were deemed proper by use-of-force experts who testified on both sides of the case. The federal judge ruled that only the final seconds were excessive.

The mainstream media failed miserably to explain why the Rodney King beating occurred. The increasing proliferation of video cameras guarantees that more and more police incidents will be captured. But the truth almost always lies deeper than the video.

How has the LAPD changed in 20 years? Ask a hundred people, and you'll likely get a hundred answers.

Here are five:

  • Shortly after the riot, Chief Willie Williams was sworn in as the first outside police chief in 45 years. The voters created a new system where the chief could serve only a five-year term, renewable once at the city's option. On two occasions so far, the city has sent the chief packing after five years.
  • "Community policing" has taken hold in ways not seen in the past. The LAPD diversified to the point where Caucasian officers have been in the minority for many years. The city is on the verge of becoming majority Latino, and so is the department.
  • The role of the civilian police commission (which had been the "boss" of the chief of police for many decades) was intensified, and an independent inspector general position was created.
  • Use of force, whether minor or major, receives intense investigative scrutiny and command review. The TASER, pepper spray, and beanbag shotguns are used in greater numbers of incidents.  (A less-powerful TASER was used twice in the King incident with limited success.) Baton use is minimal.
  • More than 2,000 additional officers were hired in an effort to achieve a (not yet realized) goal of 10,000.

Lou Cannon's "Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD", published in 1997, is the best book I've read on the subject. Its conclusion is worth quoting: "The incident had changed the way Los Angeles thought about its police force, and in time it had changed the police force itself."

Greg Meyer is a retired LAPD captain and a member of the POLICE Advisory Board. He had several involvements in the investigation and litigation of the King case.

Related:

My Memories of the Rodney King Riots? Rage and Frustration

What Really Happened During the Rodney King Riots


Get Your FREE Trial Issue and Win a Gift! Subscribe Today!
Yes! Please rush me my FREE TRIAL ISSUE of POLICE magazine and FREE Officer Survival Guide with tips and tactics to help me safely get out of 10 different situations.

Just fill in the form to the right and click the button to receive your FREE Trial Issue.

If POLICE does not satisfy you, just write "cancel" on the invoice and send it back. You'll pay nothing, and the FREE issue is yours to keep. If you enjoy POLICE, pay only $25 for a full one-year subscription (12 issues in all). Enjoy a savings of nearly 60% off the cover price!

Offer valid in US only. Outside U.S., click here.
It's easy! Just fill in the form below and click the red button to receive your FREE Trial Issue.
First Name:
Last Name:
Rank:
Agency:
Address:
City:
State:
  
Zip Code:
 
Country:
We respect your privacy. Please let us know if the address provided is your home, as your RANK / AGENCY will not be included on the mailing label.
E-mail Address:

Police Magazine