Rodney King beating 20 years later: Can't we all just get along?

theGRIO REPORT - For all of the attention that the King incident brought in terms of the need for reforms, statistics suggest that these incidents have increased...

This week marks the twentieth anniversary of the Rodney King beating, an incident which shone the spotlight on police brutality and race relations in Los Angeles and throughout the United States.

On March 3, 1991, King — who was driving with two of his friends in his white Hyundai — was stopped by LAPD officers following a high-speed chase on the 210 freeway with the California Highway Patrol. King reportedly had been drinking with his friends. Ordered out of car, King was repeatedly beaten and kicked by officers Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno and Stacey Koon. According to court records, after learning that King worked at Dodger Stadium, Powell said to King: ”’We played a little ball tonight, didn’t we Rodney? You know, we played a little ball, we played a little hardball tonight, we hit quite a few home runs. Yes, we played a little ball and you lost and we won.’”

King sustained serious internal injuries, including a broken cheekbone and a broken right ankle, and received 20 stitches, including five inside of his mouth. In his negligence claim against the city of Los Angeles, for which he later won $3.8 million, he also claimed he suffered “11 skull fractures, permanent brain damage, broken [bones and teeth], kidney damage [and] emotional and physical trauma.”

The four officers would later claim self-defense, arguing that their lives were in danger from King, who they said was aggressive and was resisting arrest. Meanwhile, other police officers who were on the scene did nothing to stop the beating. What made this police beating incident different from many others was that it was caught on videotape — by a bystander named George Holliday, a plumbing company manager. The tape showed that the officers clubbed King with 56 baton strokes, and kicks to the head and body.

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Rodney King Aftermath

The LAPD officers were charged but were later acquitted by a jury trial the following year. The acquittal led to the April 1992 Los Angeles riots, in which 55 people were killed, about 2,000 were injured and 12,000 arrested, with over $1 billion in property damage. In the midst of the riots King called for calm, asking in the now famous words, “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?” The officers were subsequently tried in federal court on civil rights violations, where Powell and Koon were convicted and sentenced to 30 months each. Wind and Briseno were acquitted.

In the wake of the Rodney King beating, The Christopher Commission report was issued to conduct “a full and fair examination of the structure and operation of the LAPD,” including its recruitment and training policies, citizen complaint system and internal disciplinary practices. The report found that a significant number of police officers used excessive force and ignored department guidelines. In addition, the complaint system was skewed against complainants. There was a breakdown in leadership on the force, a management problem, with a failure to deal with repeat offender officers who were often promoted and rewarded for their behavior.

“Testimony from a variety of witnesses depict the LAPD as an organization with practices and procedures that are conducive to discriminatory treatment and officer misconduct directed to members of minority groups,” the report found. “Witnesses repeatedly told of LAPD officers verbally harassing minorities, detaining African-American and Latino men who fit certain generalized descriptions of minorities, employing unnecessarily invasive or humiliating tactics in minority neighborhoods and using excessive force.” Police officers of color, the Christopher Commission found, were also susceptible to racist slurs, racially-motivated behavior and discriminatory treatment, which was attributed to white dominance in LAPD managerial positions. In light of these findings, the Commission recommended the resignation of LAPD police chief Daryl Gates.

The LAPD’s reputation was further damaged in the late 1990s by the corruption scandal involving the Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) anti-gang unit of the LAPD’s Rampart Division. Over 70 officers were implicated of brutality, misconduct and corruption. At least three officers in the unit were found to be on the payroll of Death Row Records boss and convicted felon Marion “Suge” Knight, who is affiliated with the Bloods gang. The officers were implicated in the drive-by shooting murder of rapper Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace, (a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G.). The scandal led to over 140 civil lawsuits, with settlement costs of over $125 million. The report of the Rampart Review Panel noted a sense of insularity in the CRASH unit. This created an “us versus them” mentality towards the community, and an “ends justifies the means” attitude that led to abuses of authority, such as the planting of evidence, unjustifiable beatings and shootings, bank robbery and drug dealing. “Community policing — which must be at the heart of the Department’s efforts to reestablish its credibility with the public — remains more a slogan than reality. And ethics remains almost an afterthought in the training of the City’s police officers,” according to the report. Before Rodney King, police brutality and misconduct were longstanding problems in Los Angeles. In 1962 Malcolm X spoke out the LAPD, who entered the Nation of Islam’s Los Angeles Temple and killed Temple secretary Ronald Stokes. And three decades later, following the Rodney king beating, Los Angeles was not the only city to grapple with police abuse. It was a national problem, and according to civil rights activists a problem of epidemic proportions in cities such as New York.

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New York City

In 1994, New York’s Mollen Commission report on police corruption found that “Today’s corruption is not the corruption of Knapp Commission days [when a prior police corruption commission issued a report in the early 1970s]. Corruption then was largely a corruption of accommodation, of criminals and police officers giving and taking bribes, buying and selling protection. Corruption was, in its essence, consensual. Today’s corruption is characterized by brutality, theft, abuse of authority and active police criminality.”

As mayor of New York City from 1994 to 2001, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his police commissioner William Bratton adopted an approach to crime fighting known as “Broken Windows,” a concept developed by conservative Harvard professor James Q. Wilson. Under the Broken Windows theory, law enforcement cracks down on minor “quality of life” offenses such as marijuana possession, jumping the turnstile in the subway, or drinking a beer on a street corner, with the assumption that such police action would deter more serious, violent offenses. Giuliani and his police chief also employed Compstat, in which commanders present regular statistical reports on crime patterns to top brass. The system has been criticized for encouraging unethical behavior, including the manipulation of crime data, and pressuring police to “cook the books” or increase arrests.

Under Giuliani’s watch, aggressive police tactics — under the backdrop of poor community relations in communities of color — resulted in allegations of police abuse and torture, and fatal shootings of unarmed suspects in police custody. Nearly 70,000 people filed lawsuits against the police, claiming they were strip searched for conduct as innocuous as jaywalking. From 1994 to 1996, police brutality complaints increased 45 percent, according to the New York City comptroller’s office, and in those years the city paid about $70 million in settlements or judgments in police misconduct cases. In 1997, the city paid more than $27.5 million, a 38 percent increase from 1993.

And during this time, New York experienced some of its most high-profile cases of police abuse. Amnesty International said in its report on police brutality and excessive force in the NYPD that “the evidence suggests that the large majority of the victims of police abuses are racial minorities, particularly African-Americans and people of Latin American or Asian descent. Racial disparities appear to be especially marked in cases involving deaths in custody or questionable shootings, an issue Amnesty International believes should be the focus of particular inquiry.”

Meanwhile in a report on police brutality in New York and other cities throughout the nation, Human Rights Watch characterized police abuse as one of the most serious and divisive human rights violations in America: “The excessive use of force by police officers, including unjustified shootings, severe beatings, fatal chokings, and rough treatment, persists because overwhelming barriers to accountability make it possible for officers who commit human rights violations to escape due punishment and often to repeat their offenses. Police or public officials greet each new report of brutality with denials or explain that the act was an aberration, while the administrative and criminal systems that should deter these abuses by holding officers accountable instead virtually guarantee them impunity.”

In 1994, Anthony Baez, 29, was choked to death by an NYPD cop for hitting the officer’s patrol car with a football. The officer was sentenced to 7 ½ years in federal court. In 1995, Bronx residents Anthony Rosario, 18, and Hilton Vega, 22, were reportedly shot to death execution-style by police, as the two men begged for their lives. The city settled with the families for $1.1 million.

Abner Louima was reportedly beaten, tortured and sodomized by officers of Brooklyn’s 70th precinct in August 1997. According to Louima, during the assault the officers allegedly proclaimed that this is “Giuliani time.” Louima won $8.7 million, which was the largest settlement in the city’s history. One of the officers was sentenced to five years for his involvement, and three convictions were overturned. And on February 4, 1999 four white NYPD officers shot and killed an unarmed Amadou Diallo, 22, a street vendor from Guinea, in a barrage of 41 bullets, of which 19 struck him from a distance of only two feet. The officers were acquitted by a jury, and the city of New York later settled with the family for $3 million.

20 years later

Over the 20 years since the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, cases of abuse and misconduct by law enforcement continue. In some cases, for all of the attention that the King incident brought in terms of the need for reforms, statistics suggest that these incidents have increased. In the post-9-11 era, racial profiling has left its impact on African-American, Asian, Latino, South Asian, Arab and Muslim communities. The ACLU reported in 2009 that “A major impediment to the eradication of racial profiling remains the continued unwillingness or inability of the U.S. government to pass federal legislation prohibiting profiling with binding effect on federal, state, or local law enforcement. Moreover, certain U.S. government policies continue to contribute significantly to the prevalence of racial profiling.”

In addition, a number of high profile cases have kept the issue on the front burner and in the public eye, such as the 50-bullet shooting death of Sean Bel in Queens, New York in 2006; the federal indictment of six New Orleans police officers for murdering civilians in the days following Hurricane Katrina, and the 2009 police shooting death of an unarmed Oscar Grant lying face down in an Oakland, California subway. Even President Obama became involved in the issue of race and police policies and practices when Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested by Cambridge, Massachusetts police outside his home after reports of a possible break-in. The president invited Gates and the arresting officer, Sgt. James Crowley for a “beer summit” at the White House.

But according to the ACLU, while there has been progress in reforming some police departments— particularly in cities that have a tradition of “good government” and well-organized communities of color—measuring the level of police brutality remains elusive. Reasons include different standards maintained by police departments, and their failure to release data on disciplinary and other matters. The 1994 Police Accountability Act requires the Attorney General to compile national data on the use of excessive force, but Congress has failed to fund it.

The data on the Bureau of Justice statistics website regarding arrest-related deaths and police stops date back to the Bush administration. Due to the politicization of the Department of Justice under Bush, the Bureau ’s reporting was compromised and its reports whitewashed. For example, the justice Department found that in 2002, white, black and Latino drivers were stopped at about the same rate, about 9 percent. However the report omitted the statistics concerning the racial disparities once they were stopped. For example, Latino drivers or their vehicles were searched by police 11.4 percent of the time and blacks 10.2 percent of the time, compared with 3.5 percent for whites. Further, blacks and Latinos faced force or the threat of force more often than whites, and police were more likely to issue tickets to Latinos than mere warnings.

In an effort to fill the gap, in 2009 the National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project was formed to record, analyze and approximate police misconduct in the U.S. by gathering news media reports. Their most recent data from the first nine months of 2010 tracked 3,814 unique reports of police misconduct involving 4,966 law enforcement officers and 5,711 alleged victims and 193 fatalities. One quarter of the cases, or 1,242, involved the use of excessive force, the most prominent type of misconduct. Of the excessive force reports, 735 (58.4 percent) involved physical use of force such as fist strikes, throws, choke holds and baton strikes. Firearms were involved in 175 complaints (14.1 percent) and tasers in 126 (10.1 percent), with police dogs, police vehicles, chemical weapons and mixed use of force accounting for the remainder of cases. Meanwhile, 7 percent of the excessive force cases—92 cases—resulted in fatalities. Of those fatalities reported, 68 were caused by firearms, 15 were caused by physical force, 11 by taser, and 3 by other means. During that time, an estimated $213 million was spent on police misconduct-related civil judgments and settlements.

CCR Report on NYPD stops-and-frisks

If the brand new data coming from New York City are any indication, racial profiling and police misconduct are a growing problem 20 years after Rodney King. According to NYPD data for 2010, police officers made 600,601 street stops, a record high that is 3.5 percent higher than the 580,000 stops from the previous year. Seven percent of the stops last year resulted in an arrest, compared with 6 percent in 2009. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights a leading civil rights law firm and advocacy organization, these stops are race-based, and they have the data to prove it. One of a coalition of organizations that challenged the Giuliani administration’s law enforcement abuses in the 1990s, CCR continues its battle under the Bloomberg administration.

In midtown Manhattan, CCR has placed an ad on the Times Square Jumbotron showing that in 2009 in the Big Apple, a record 576,394 people were stopped, 84 percent of whom were black and Latino residents — although they make up only 26 percent and 27 percent of the city’s total population, respectively. “Stop-and-Frisk Does Not Reduce Crime” reads the CCR ad. CCR has found that stops-and-frisks are increasing every year, with a 600 percent increase between 2002 and 2009. The organization filed a class action lawsuit against the NYPD and the City of New York for their practice of unconstitutional racial profiling and stop-and-frisk practices, and has issued a report called Racial Disparities in NYPD Stops-and-Frisks.

Their report — which contains data from 2005 to 2008, supplemented by an update for 2009 and 2010-found that when blacks and Latinos are stopped by the NYPD, 45 percent of them were frisked, as opposed to only 29 percent of whites. This occurs despite the fact that whites, who are 44 percent of New York’s population, are 70 percent more likely to have a gun. Moreover, CCR found there was no correlation between the proportion of stops-and-frisks by race and the rate of arrest or summons, demonstrating that stop-and-frisk is an ineffective crime-fighting tool.

Further, blacks and Latinos are more likely to have physical force used against them. For example, in early 2008, 18 percent of whites stopped had physical force used against them by the NYPD, as opposed to 24 percent of Latinos and blacks.

“The take away is that it simply doesn’t matter whether neighborhoods have low crime rates, are mostly black, mostly Latino, racially mixed, mostly white; black and Latino residents are more likely to be stopped than whites,” said Vince Warren, CCR’s Executive Director. According to Warren, since CCR started suing the NYPD in 1999, the police claimed that they stop people based on reasonable suspicion that a crime was committed, based on a description of a perpetrator, and as an effective means to get guns off the street.

“The significance of this meticulously researched report, which includes analysis based on the police department’s own data, is that it confirms what black and brown people have been saying for years: race drives police stops and frisks, not crime,” Warren said. “Nearly half of all stops over the last six years were justified by citing the vague category ‘furtive movements,’ as opposed to only 15 percent citing ‘fits relevant description”. In more than half of all stops, the officers cite “high crime area” as an “additional circumstance” even in precincts with lower than average crime rates,” he added.

Warren also commented on the report’s finding that stop-and-frisk yields an extremely low proportion of gun recoveries, a negligible 0.15 out of a hundred stops, which he called “completely pitiful.”

The significance of this report, according to Warren, is that New York must come to grips with its racial profiling problem. “There are hundreds of thousands of innocent black and brown New Yorkers who daily suffer the indignities of these illegal police tactics. And the police department should be protecting them and not harassing them,” Warren said. “What’s clear, is that the first priority for city leaders should be to protect innocent residents from its own law enforcement tactics. And that’s going to require the Mayor, the police commissioner and others responsible to drop the stale rhetoric of crime control and make some urgent changes in the way they treat communities of color,” Warren added.

In addition to urging citizens to know their rights, the CCR report makes a number of recommendations, including greater transparency and availability of data by the NYPD; increasing the scope and authority of the Civilian Complaint Review Board; creating a permanent Independent Police Auditor to review police policies and practices in order to propose systemic reforms; and forming a community-based CopWatch program to monitor law enforcement.

Beyond the statistics, New Yorkers and Americans everywhere are left with a cultural divide that causes whites and people of color to have fundamentally different experiences with the police. A New York Times/CBS poll asked respondents if they ever felt they were stopped by the police based on their race or ethnicity. While 66 percent of black men said yes, only 9 percent of white men answered in the affirmative. Some scholars maintain that racial profiling, a bad law enforcement practice, is nevertheless ubiquitous in American society.

“Racial profiling is the thin end of the wedge of our misuse of the criminal justice system as a major instrument of urban social policy,” said Harvard Law Professor Lani Guinier in the recently published book, Twelve Angry Men: True Stories of Being a Black Man In America Today. The book is an anthology of stories told by African-American men who have made encounters with the police.

Guinier noted that when cops profile the black guy, they risk missing the bad guy. “Racial profiling is like second-hand smoke that circulates invisibly in dark, closed spaces. Racial profiling is pervasive (at least in part) because the commonplace association of black people with danger exerts a powerful yet often imperceptible influence on the operation of the unconscious minds of many Americans, not just those who work in law enforcement,” said Guinier. The law professor also decried the lack of racial literacy in the U.S., which prevents Americans from understanding how racial profiling pollutes them collectively. Perhaps this provides an answer as to whether we can all get along.