Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Rodney King Distortion

Lest readers think that my last post and my 2011 post on the Diallo shooting means that I am anti-police, let me take the opportunity to defend the officers who arrested Rodney King in 1991.

Here's an example of how the press continues to frame that event:

The horrific beating of Rodney King by five police officers in Los Angeles in 1991 -- and the subsequent acquittal of his assailants -- sparked the L.A. riots of 1992, leading to 53 deaths, some at the hands of police. It was also a video introduction to police brutality for those in America who may have doubted its severity.
And the phrase "Rodney King beating" is one that I often hear or read when the event is referred to in radio or print reports.

Let's step back and see what actually happened back in 1991.

Rodney King was driving very fast when he was pursued by the LAPD.  Apparently trying to avoid pursuit, he drove at times in excess of 100mph.  The officers pursuing him considered this driving sufficiently reckless to justify an arrest.  When King finally stopped his car, the police officers arrested his two passengers, who did not resist - no muss, no fuss.

King, however, refused to cooperate in his arrest.  When the officers attempted to gang pile him, he shook them off - think of a wet spaniel shaking off water.  The officers tried their second tool for subduing arrestees, a taser.  The first taser had no effect, so they tasered him a second time - still no effect.

It's at this point that the well known video recording of the event begins.  In the first few seconds, you can see King charging one of the officers*.  It's at this point the batons come out, and the officers attempt to subdue King by baton blows.  It's true that when you see the video recording, the baton blows appear gratuitously violent, but remember - the recording does not include the sound from outside the window through which the camera is pointed.  The officers are calling on King to lie still and put his hands behind his back.  Instead of complying, King continues trying to rise to his feet, and the officers continue to try to keep him on the ground using their batons.  If you watch the video carefully, there's a point where King stays still for a moment, and you can see the officer with his back to the camera begin to reach for his handcuffs before King once again starts up.

I spoke to a police officer about the King arrest a few days after, and he remarked that part of police training in baton use was to break the wrists or ankles of a particularly recalcitrant arrestee. The officers arresting King did not go that far, and testimony at the trial of the officers confirmed that their use of batons was within the guidelines set by the LAPD.**  You may think that the guidelines on baton use are inappropriate - but if so, that was the fault of the LAPD, not the individual officers acting within those guidelines.

I saw the video recording when it was first broadcast, and thought at the time: good - policemen gratuitously beating a man had been caught on videotape, and would be held to account.  It was during the trial, as testimony on the reality of the situation was reported, that I realized my first impression was a distortion.  Unfortunately, the press did not report the thrust of the testimony widely enough, so those who had not made the effort to follow the trial were surprised by the justified acquittals, and riots ensued.  The subsequent federal trial was a purely political effort, sacrificing the officers to assuage uninformed public opinion.  In that trial, two officers were acquitted and two convicted.  It's my belief that the jury in the second trial were too fearful of a second round of riots to acquit all the officers, as they should have.

So the appropriate expression the press should be using is "the Rodney King arrest", not "the Rodney King beating."

(For a full account of the King arrest, the trials, and the riots, I recommend Official Negligence by Lou Cannon.)

*For the first few seconds, the recording is out of focus.  Some video editors, in a misguided attempt to be "professional", cut out the part that is not well focussed - the part that shows King charging the officers.

**The jurors in the original trial were split on the question of whether one of the officers had crossed the line in attempting to subdue King.  I don't know this for a fact, but I suspect it was the officer seen kicking King, rather than relying solely on a baton to

Update 11/08/2014.
At the time of the trial, I asked a friend who was critical of the baton use, "In the circumstances, what do you think the officers should have done differently?"   Her weak answer: "They could have  shot him in the leg."(!)  I invite critics of the officers to answer the same question.
It should be noted that the LAPD moved to the use of batons to subdue a person who refused to be arrested after the previous technique of a choke hold led to deaths of arrestees. Just this year, in New York we've seen how that can happen.

Update 6/14/2015
The Salinas police chief describes in detail the background to a similar video recording.
Much of what he says applies to the Rodney King arrest.

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