The Rodney King case was loaded with many lessons that are still pertinent today. Here are three:
The Carotid Control Hold Is An Effective Tool
On May 12, 1982, politicians (not police leaders) took away the carotid control hold from LAPD officers, and the baton became a first resort when a suspect resisted arrest. The carotid was taken away because there was concern that the carotid hold was killing people. It turned out that these were typical arrest-related deaths due to agitated delirium, excited delirium (whatever you wish to call it). Such deaths still happen hundreds of times a year around the country (and the world), regardless of what police tool or tactic is used: carotid, pepper spray, hog-tie, TASER, whatever.
The carotid remains a very effective tactic that is still widely used by many agencies. Everyone wants to blame the police instead of the drugs or other mental/medical conditions of the suspect that lead to the bizarre behavior that must be controlled.
Naturally, the politicians escaped without accountability for their very poor decision. One Los Angeles councilman even went on record in a newspaper stating that he thought it would be less expensive to pay for broken bones from batons than it would be to pay out in lawsuits over choke-hold cases. Yeah, right! Ask the 56 people who died in the riot if it was cheaper. The policy and training to use the baton as a first resort should never have occurred, but it did.
LAPD Management's Aggressive Baton Training
Second, LAPD management was not minding the store. For the nine years between 1982 and the Rodney King incident (1991), the baton was being used very aggressively, because that was the policy and the training that occurred in response. Of the approximately 3,600 reported uses of force per year (during over 300,000 arrests), more than 1,000 of the cases involved baton use.
Management (and just about everyone else) recoiled in horror after the King video. A couple of years later, the top assistant chief was on a radio talk show and literally stated, "We didn't know, we just didn't know," when asked about the policy and training and why the baton was used so much. That's management negligence, folks.
7-Watt TASERs Didn't Work
Third, before any baton use and kicking occurred, Rodney King was manually brought to the ground by four officers, but he threw them off. Then he was twice brought to the ground by use of an older-model TASER. His second fall occurred while he was running toward one of the officers, resulting in his ugly facial injury that is often mistakenly said to have been inflicted by a baton.
The TASER did not keep Rodney King on the ground. He kept getting up, and then the baton strikes and kicking started. These days, we have more powerful TASERs, thank goodness.
Greg Meyer is a retired LAPD captain who is an internationally known use-of-force expert. He is a member of the POLICE Advisory Board.