Lou Cannon dissects the Rodney King case and the LA riots.
April 7, 1998
in this forum:
What changes have occurred in South Central LA since the riots? Was the LAPD reluctant to discuss the beating and riots? How important was race in the beating and trial? Did the media do a poor job explaining Rodney King's record and behavior? Why were officers tried twice for the same crime?
April 28, 1997
A fifth anniversary look at the LA riots.
December 19, 1997
President Clinton meets with citizens to discuss his race initiative.
December 3, 1997
The CIA investigates accusations it helped crack dealers in South Central LA.
Members of the One America initiative talk about race.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of race relations.
An LA Times special on the riots.
Pictures may not lie, but they don't always tell the whole story.
According to veteran journalist Lou Cannon, this was the case for one of the most famous tragedies of this decade: the Rodney King beating and the Los Angeles riots.
In March 1991, television stations broadcast an amateur videotape of LAPD officers clubbing the unarmed King. Replayed again and again, the short, brutal clip riveted the nation and became an instant symbol of racism and police brutality in America.
March 1991: An amateur videotape shows LAPD officers clubbing and kicking Rodney King, who is black.
April 1992: A jury acquits three of the officers involved in the beating. There were no black jurors.
April 1992: The verdict sparks riots, destroying much of South Central LA. Fifty-four people are dead, over 2,000 are injured. The estimated damage totals $900 million.
During the riots, another brutal attack is captured on tape and televised. Reginald Denny, a white truck driver, is severely beaten by rioters.
SOME INFORMATION HIGHLIGHTED BY LOU CANNON:
Different versions of the tape: Most of America saw an edited version of the amateur videotape. Jurors in the officers' trial saw an additional 13 seconds, in which King charged the officers. This version fueled the jurors' decision to acquit.
The climate in Los Angeles: The riots were not sparked by the King case alone. Just 13 days after the King beating, a 15 year-old African American girl was shot in the back of the head by a Korean shopkeeper. Despite a conviction of voluntary manslaughter, the shopkeeper was set free on probation.
But for Cannon, these tapes did not tell the whole story of what happened in LA; images of the beating and riots that followed pointed to a more complex set of problems: a woefully trained police force and flaws in the city's civic and judicial leadership.
Six years after the riots, what stands out in your mind about the incident? What were the biggest lessons to be learned from the riots? Have things improved since then?
Lou Cannon answers questions on his book "Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD."
The riots shook up much of the police department and the city's leadership. But what changes have you observed within the South Central community? For instance, has the community organized itself to prevent another riot from happening? Have the tensions between the LAPD and South Central residents subsided?
Lou Cannon responds:
Many changes have occurred in South Central since the 1992 riots, some of which are described in the final chapters of my book, "Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD." The demographics of this vast area are changing, with a significant increase in the Latino population and a lesser increase of Asians. Meanwhile, the proportion (and actual numbers) of African Americans have declined, accelerating a trend that began before the riots. While the promised corporate investment in rebuilding South Central failed to materialize, small businesses have led an economic resurgence as Southern California has emerged from its worst economic downturn since the Depression.
My interviews with persons of all races and ethnic groups suggest that relationships between the LAPD and South Central residents have significantly improved, although they are far from ideal. African Americans have told me that police hassling of black males has declined. Police officers say they are receiving increased cooperation in minority communities. Because of community policing, an essential recommendation of the Christopher Commission that investigated the LAPD after the Rodney King beating, residents throughout the city have more routine contact with the LAPD, which is desirable. Community policing requires manpower (which means women, as well as men), and the LAPD was notoriously short-handed for years. At the urging of Mayor Richard Riordan and Police Chiefs Willie Williams and Bernard Parks, the LAPD has added 2,000 officers, making community policing possible. LAPD training has improved, both in martial arts training to subdue resistant suspects without harming them and in diversity training. The City Council has belatedly granted the department a variety of non-lethal weapons, and pepper-gas spray rather than the metal baton has become the preferred method of subduing resistant suspects. Chief Parks, a 30-year LAPD veteran and an African American, has provided strong leadership of the department.
I know of no way that the community can "organize itself to prevent another riot from occurring," to use the language of your question. The riots were not organized (except in a limited way by some gang members once the LAPD abandoned the riot epicenter), and the majority of people in South Central did not participate in them. Civil disorders occurred in a number of cities in protest to the verdicts in Simi Valley in which three officers accused of using excessive force against Mr. King were acquitted and another officer acquitted of all but one charge. In most cities, the disorders were promptly quelled. The principal reason they were not quelled in Los Angeles was that the LAPD did not act quickly to stop the riots at their inception, as their doctrine dictated.
But while the city's many and varied communities lack the means to prevent a riot, they can influence attitudes through dialogue and neighborhood action. Currently, Los Angeles is struggling to reform a complex and outmoded city charter with the goal of giving ordinary citizens a greater say. In another promising development, Mayor Riordan has named Joe Hicks, one of the city's ablest community activists and an African American, to head the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission, an underfunded and neglected body that had become dormant.
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How much resistance did you come across interviewing members of the LAPD? Was there a reluctance to discuss the Rodney King beating, the riots and the flaws within the police department?
Lou Cannon responds:
Initially, many officers were reluctant to be interviewed, which is one reason the book took five years to report and write, In part. this reflected generalized distrust of the news media within the law enforcement community. In part, it was because rank-and-file officers--especially those from the 77th Street Division who bore the brunt of the riots--were alienated from the city's police and political leadership as well as the media, and reluctant to talk at all. But I have 40 years of experience as a reporter and writer and had covered the two criminal trials of the officers involved in the King incident and the riots for The Washington Post. It is my belief that I wrote about these events evenhandedly and have a reputation for fairness, Police officers are like everyone else: they will consent to interviews if they think they will be treated honestly. Even so, it would have been impossible to cover as much ground as I did without the help of Jaxon Van Derbeken, a fine police reporter who at the time worked for the Los Angeles Daily News and now works for the San Francisco Chronicle. Jaxon conducted many vital interviews and shared his valuable insights.
The LAPD is not a monolith, any more than is the media. Many officers had exposed flaws and deficiencies within the department before and after the King beating. One reason the Christopher Commission report was so powerful was that it was based in part on testimony from two high-ranking members of the LAPD leadership who criticized then-Chief Daryl Gates for allegedly failing to crack down on officers who repeatedly were accused of excessive force. Readers of my book will find that some of the most profound criticisms of the LAPD, and especially of its conduct during the riots, originated with police officers.
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For many, the King beating and trial proved that racism and race-related injustices existed in LA. But your book seems to emphasize other factors, such as poor police training and leadership. In your mind, how large a role did race play in the beating and the Simi Valley trial?
Lou Cannon responds:
Racism is intertwined with the history of the LAPD, as it is of our country, as my book repeatedly points out. The LAPD was created in response to a mass lynching of innocent Chinese in 1871, one of the worst atrocities in U.S. history. The book traces the evolution of the department from corruption to professionalism. It pays attention to notorious acts of racism such as the 1951 "Bloody Christmas" beating of Mexican Americans so graphically depicted in the film L.A. Confidential and to deaths of African Americans in police custody in the 1970s and 1980s from use of upper-body control holds, commonly called choke holds. It discusses patterns of discrimination within the LAPD against minorities and women. One reason that many blacks (and not blacks alone) assumed that the King beating was racial in origin was because of the poor reputation of the LAPD among many African Americans.
But the purpose of my book was to find the truth, not reinforce stereotypes. Mr. King is a muscular person who led police on a 7.8 mile chase, ignored police commands to lie down on the ground, threw four officers off his back who tried to handcuff him without hurting him. He was wearing a T-shirt but was sweating on a cold night, and the officers thought that in addition to being drunk (which he later acknowledged) that he was on PCP. They became convinced of this when he rose to his feet after being hit with two volleys of a stun gun, each of them containing 50,000 volts of electricity, and then charged at an officer. It has never been determined whether Mr. King was in fact on PCP, but it is almost certainly true that anyone who behaved as he did would have been beaten. There have been many lawsuits against the LAPD settled by the city where people of all races were beaten for far less resistant conduct. I think the beating went on far too long, but the issue of whether it constituted criminal conduct is a complicated one that in discussed from many points of view on my book.
The problem with understanding the incident is that the events described above occurred before the famous videotape of the incident--except for the first three seconds of the video in which King charges toward Officer Laurence Powell. These three seconds, and ten other seconds that follow, were deleted by the Los Angeles television station that showed the beating, which is the version that most people saw. Neither the leading state prosecutor (who is an African American) nor the federal prosecutors thought that King was beaten because of his race, although they believed the beating was criminally excessive.
In any case, there is no doubt that Officer Powell was poorly trained and that his panic when Mr. King charged toward him contributed to the subsequent events. Training is supposed to overcome fear in the teachings of LAPD, but Officer Powell had by coincidence flunked a baton text against a stationary target (a rubber tire) at the beginning of his shift that night, and Rodney King was not stationary. I quote veteran officers as saying that Powell should not have been sent out into the field after he failed the test.
There is also no doubt that the verdicts of the Ventura County jury in Simi Valley were widely seen as an act of racial injustice, in large part because there were no blacks on the jury. I fault not the jurors but the judges who defied their own precedents and moved the trial out of diverse Los Angeles into mostly white Ventura County, where there were few blacks in the jury pool. Also, the prosecution in Simi Valley was put at a definite disadvantage by the prior editing of the videotape on television. When the full videotape was played during the trial, it reinforced the perception of conservative jurors that the media had not told the full story of Rodney King.
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Do you think the media did a poor job of explaining Rodney King's criminal record and behavior at the time of the beating?
Lou Cannon responds:
I think that the news media adequately explained Mr. King's criminal record, which wasn't extensive. It was widely reported that he had served a prison term for robbery and had a history of misbehaving when he drank, as he did that night. Where the media fell down was not in failing to explain Mr. King's criminal record-- which in any case does not justify excessive force-- but in failing to go beyond the record of the edited videotape and examine Mr. King's conduct before it began. Most of the media assumed that the officers were guilty.
I also think that the media paid insufficient attention to the demographics of Ventura County and the difficulty of convicting police officers in that venue. I pointed this out in some of my stories but wish I had emphasized it more. By failing to point out the pro-police composition of the jury-- and the opinions of the jurors were available to reporters on the questionnaires they had filed with the court-- the media contributed to the general perception that convictions in Simi Valley were inevitable because of the videotape. This perception, unfortunately shared by Chief Gates and Mayor Tom Bradley, was the principal cause of the LAPD's unpreparedness for the riots.
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Why were the police officers tried twice for the same crime? Doesn't this violate "double jeopardy?"
Lou Cannon responds:
The Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution provides that no person shall "be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.But in 1959 the Supreme Court decided by a 5-4 vote in a case known as Bartkus that the doctrine of "dual sovereignty" permits successive state and federal prosecutions for essentially the same crime.
In a famous dissent, Justice Hugo Black said the court had permitted double jeopardy in defiance of the constitutional prohibition. Black was a leading liberal on the court. His view of this case is shared by the American Civil Liberties Union and also by some notable conservative jurists, Such as Robert Bork, who believe the decision violated the Constitution's original intent.
Nonetheless, Bartkus made dual sovereignty the law of the land and therefore permitted federal prosecution of the officers for violating Mr. King's civil rights. What I find more distasteful is the political component of the second prosecution. On May 1, 1992, the third day of the riots, President Bush gave a prime-time television speech in which he virtually promised federal prosecution of the acquitted officers. In Official Negligence,, I quote an aide to then Vice President Quayle who said that Mr. Bush and Attorney General William Barr felt the prosecutions were politically imperative even though "legally it was a questionable thing."
Also, my interviews show that some federal jurors were fearful that Los Angeles, where 54 people had died in the riots a year earlier, would face new disorders if all the officers were acquitted. That is why I call fear "the thirteenth juror" in the federal trial. The judge in the case said subsequently that he 'would have granted a change of venue if the defense had made such a request.
Ironically, it is possible, perhaps probable, that acquittals occurred in the state trial because of the change of venue and that two convictions occurred in the federal trial because no change of venue was sought.
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