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the legacy of rodney king

The 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney King by L.A.P.D. officers, and subsequent riots triggered by the acquittal of the officers involved, rocked L.A. and the nation. The events brought to the forefront concerns about racism and police brutality within the L.A.P.D. Some, including former L.A.P.D. Police Chief Daryl Gates, say the the way Los Angeles responded to these events helped set the stage for the Rampart scandal. Here are the views of Chief Gates; Judge Larry Fidler; current L.A.P.D. Chief Bernard Parks; Gerald Chaleff, former President of the L.A. Police Commission; and Gregory Yates, L.A. civil rights attorney representing Rampart clients in civil suits.

Fmr. Chief Daryl Gates

Chief of L.A.P.D., 1978-1992

[Immediately after the Rodney King beating,] the image of the L.A.P.D. that was sent out to the world was this racist organization that took this opportunity to express its racism by brutalizing a black guy.

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The media, particularly the electronic media, began giving that impression by playing that tape over and over again. And then, of course, everybody that had an opinion about what took place out there; they came in, they chimed in, and they gave their opinion; and it did look like racism. "My goodness, here is this black person who is being beaten. It looks like the Old South." That's the impression that was given, but a totally false impression, because there was nothing racist about it. No one knew what Rodney King had done beforehand to be stopped. No one realized that he was a parolee and that he was violating his parole. No one knew any of those things. All they saw was this grainy film and police officers hitting him over the head. . . .

Do you believe, in retrospect--and putting yourself back at that moment--that there were forces interested in exploiting that tape, that moment--forces that had an ax to grind with the L.A.P.D.?

I don't think there is any question about it. It was a great opportunity, a great opportunity. They had the Reverend Jesse Jackson coming out here every week. He didn't even know me, and he stood up and denounced me, over and over again. He knew nothing about me, knew nothing about the policies of the Los Angeles Police Department or what we had done in all communities throughout the city--our community relations, our community efforts. He knew none of this. He just blasted Daryl Gates and the Los Angeles Police Department. Al Sharpton came out. He knew nothing about the Los Angeles Police Department, knew nothing about me. These people. . . filled the atmosphere with hate: hate, hate, hate. Those poor Los Angeles police officers. I know--I talk to them, day in and day out. They sat back and said, "Hey, what did we do? What did we do? We go out every day. We try to do the job in the best way we know how. We know what service is all about. We know. We try to help people. We try to keep them safe. What did we do? What did we do?" All I could tell them is, "You didn't do anything. You did your job. You've done a good job. You're damn fine police officers, and this is a political thing, pure politics." . . .

You believed that the L.A.P.D. was a righteous department, that it was a good department. It wasn't a corrupt department. You were proud of the department. Why did you leave?

I've looked back and I've asked the same question, "Why did I leave?" And I left really because there was so much political pressure on the department, the Christopher Commission, and all of these things. I thought, OK. As you probably remember, in the last days, I was very, very critical of politicians. I was in the newspapers every single day, criticizing somebody. And I finally thought, "Hey, it will be better for my police officers if I get out of here. The focus of attention will not be so much on me. Maybe people will recognize what fine police officers they have out there, and maybe all of this will go away."

I really believed that I was hurting my police officers by staying, so I reluctantly retired. To this day, I think back, I should have stayed another year and straightened out things. I think I would have been better off if I had stayed another year. . . .

They brought in a chief of police from outside. That was a mistake. They brought in a chief of police from the East Coast. That was a mistake. . . . He came in, a very nice guy, and all of that. But he was an individual who did not understand the Los Angeles Police Department, did not have what people ridicule and say--very divisively--"the L.A.P.D. mentality," which is really a wonderful mentality. It's a mentality of police officers out there wanting to do the job.

He came in and didn't understand any of that. He didn't understand the structure of the Los Angeles Police Department, and he undermined that structure, because he didn't understand it. As a result of that, you set the stage for what happened in Rampart.

How?

He took away an awful lot of the kinds of things that are necessary in order to make sure that you don't have police officers doing things that they ought not to do. You have audits. You have inspections. You have close supervision, particularly of specialized units, like gang units. You have very, very close supervision. You need that supervision. It's important to have that supervision. He took all of that away. I had a lieutenant in charge. I had sergeants that understood what all of this was about, what gang investigations were all about. They are the ones that supervised and took pride in the supervision of the CRASH officers. He took all of that away, and he put them in the various areas. He put them into Rampart and didn't give them the supervision. He had the regular uniformed sergeants supervising. Uniformed sergeants don't understand the gang activity, and they don't understand how the CRASH units operate.

And then he really screwed up by taking the CRASH units away from the supervision, and putting them down at another location outside of Rampart, where they were on their own. What in the hell did anybody expect was going to happen? And it happened. It happened.

Judge Larry Fidler

Former supervising judge of LA Superior Court

Help me understand [the impact of Rodney King on the] Ray Perez [incident.]

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What we have is you have two very public incidents of alleged police misconduct. The Rodney King case certainly punched a lot of buttons, especially in the minority community, who have made allegations about police misconduct and use of force.

That case gave them the support they needed to bolster their allegations, and it certainly split the city apart. We eventually had the riots when initially the officers were acquitted in state court. It touched on the divide that exists in the community. And certainly, it's always been a sore spot.

I've lived in this city my entire life, 54 years. And for most of that time, in my estimation as a citizen, the police have been absolutely revered. L.A.P.D. is, or was, a nationally revered police force. And it is still highly thought of by the majority of the citizens in Los Angeles, if you look at any poll. But those who do not think highly of L.A.P.D. have just as strong an opinion on the other side. You have these forces in society clashing with each other. And when these incidents happen, it just brings it right to the surface.

There are those who say, "I told you so, you wouldn't listen to me, here's the proof." And others say, "Well, I don't think it goes anywhere beyond . . . if it's true, it only indicates there's a problem in this one limited area." You're going to have that conflict, probably for a good long time. I don't think it's just going to go away.

And the role of race in this?

Well, I'm not an expert on race relations. I've always said that anyone who denies that racism exists in society is simply burying their head. Clearly we have problems with race. Race is an issue that does exist, and there are strong feelings in the various minority communities concerning L.A.P.D. When these incidents happen, it fuels their beliefs, and it just sets off the dialogue again and the feelings. The detractors on one hand, and the supporters of the police department on the other hand, they just go at it publicly once again. And you have this very spirited debate that sometimes goes beyond mere words. . . .

Chief Bernard Parks

Chief of L.A.P.D.

As a cop, you saw the Rodney King beating video tape. What was your reaction?

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The first time I saw it, I thought it was bad. There was nothing that you could justify it or explain it. Even when I went to roll calls, and officers wanted to talk about what happened, that was not on the film. And you had to explain to them, no matter what happened that we didn't have a visual on, could we justify what we saw on the tape? Because there were enough officers present to subdue that situation early on without the significant number of baton strokes. And you could see from the body language of many of the officers, there was not a tense altercation going on there. Most of the officers were somewhat relaxed. There were a large number of them there. . . .

Was it racial?

I don't know, and I don't think we've seen anything in the sense that it is, per se, racial. I can't get in the heads of the officers [involved]. I think it was a breakdown in leadership and supervision, and I think it [the officers involved] lost track of what they were there for. They got more involved and engaged in swinging the baton than bringing this to a conclusion, and I think that's where the downside is.

People, in essence, justify that arrest, that scene, from a variety of perspectives, including, "Well, you have to look at the whole tape." Why is there that insistence on providing a rationale?

I think you find a lot of officers that, no matter what, want to be able to be supportive of other officers. And I think, unfortunately, they're not objective, often. But I don't believe, in the sense of our own credibility to the community, that you can sit there and look at that tape, just as the community looks at it, and find rationales that could justify what occurred. . . .

We certainly were not in a deadly force situation. With the number of officers there, it was time for someone to make a decision that the baton strikes weren't working. He was not being any more cooperative. Just sheer body weight would have taken him into control in the sense of the number of officers that were present. . . .

And you felt this way, presumably, more or less at the time? You didn't have to study the tape 42 times to come to that conclusion?

No, I think it was pretty obvious. And I think that's where, from the perspective of the community, that we lost credibility; when they sensed that there were comments being made that there was some justification for that. . . .

[After the riots in response to the acquittal of the officers involved in the Rodney King beating], Chief Gates's exit was prompted, and the Los Angeles Police Department gets a new chief, and then another one, both of them black. What does it mean to this city to have a black chief of police?

Although it may mean a lot to the black community, I basically don't think in general this city, because it's such a diverse city, takes it as it relates to being black is anything more significant than being white. They just want a productive chief of police. . . . They want a chief of police that they feel is going to be fair and provide service, and they don't much care what height, weight, or color they are. And I think it's a very narrow perspective. The meaningfulness of it is very localized to maybe a community.

. . . Is it fair to say that, on some level, Willie Williams first, and then you, got the job because of your race?

You know, I don't believe so. You don't get this job for one single purpose. The issue is that you have to have some skills that you bring to the table. The powers that be are looking at this issue much broader than a black person is going to solve it.

Do you think your race was irrelevant?

It's too obvious to be irrelevant. I think the issue is that it certainly. . . it may be value-added, but it's not something that is a situation that says you get the job, versus you don't get the job. . . .

Gerald Chaleff

Former President of the L.A. Police Commission

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When you saw the Rodney King tape--that endless loop that played forever--when you saw that, what did you see?

I was horrified. I thought that it was clearly officers out of control. Clearly, if this was the climate of the Los Angeles Police Department, then we were in serious trouble, and something had to be done.

Did some part of you say, "That's not the L.A.P.D. I know?"

No, and the reason being is not because that's not the individual officers I know. Certainly I know a lot of police officers, and they're all hard working, honest, thoughtful police officers trying to do a good job. Being a police officer is not an easy job, and I think we all have to understand the pressures.

Certainly you could argue that, in the Rodney King case, the adrenaline is flowing, and they're chasing someone, and then this incident occurs. But was I surprised that this happened in Los Angeles? No. Because as a defense lawyer, you know that there are situations that you've heard about where people arrested, or accused, or roughed up. Was I surprised at the violence of it and the length of it? Yes. . . .

On some level, did the Rodney King incident afford an opportunity to examine the way L.A. policing is done?

Sure, absolutely. . . . The old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words--when you see somebody on the ground being beaten, or appear to be being beaten by four or five officers, with other officers standing around--and then some of the comments that were made afterwards and how it was handled, it certainly conveys an image. . . . When you have a symbol like that of that's how your police department operates, of course it's going to lead to people saying that we have to evaluate what we're doing.

Gregory Yates

Los Angeles civil rights attorney representing numerous Rampart clients in civil suits stemming from Perez's allegations

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Give me a sense of what the Rodney King case said about the L.A.P.D. and its effect on Los Angeles.

Well, the obvious effect was that there was a riot, and I watched the city burn. But there was still some optimism that maybe this was just a select crew that had gone bad, so to speak. There were the racial implications, obviously. In 1988, the 39th and Dalton incident was another eye-opener, where they went into what they believed or had information was gang territory, drug-dealing territory. They just basically knocked houses down and arrested innocent citizens.

So the two things combined, Rodney King, 39th and Dalton, and then the findings of the Christopher Commission made it very evident in the early 1990s there were some serious problems. And more so outside of Los Angeles, the public began to view L.A.P.D. as being a corrupt, an almost SS troop kind of organization. I think the people that lived here wanted to deny it as long as they could, because you have to feel that you're protected. Who are you going to go to if you're in trouble? . . . I don't think that, until about 1994 or 1995, did I became completely convinced that it was an institutional problem.

Give me some sense of this department's place in the community.

Unfortunately, the image right now of the L.A.P.D. is at an all-time low. It's very tarnished. And I say "unfortunately," because I think it's important to the community to feel safe, to feel pride in their protectors.

Had it always been thus? When you began, what was the reputation of the L.A.P.D.?

I started practicing in 1974. I noticed that there was a certain "us versus them" attitude about the police. It's almost a Gestapo kind of approach--something totally different from the Midwest, where I went to school and was raised. That was the first thing that caught my attention about the L.A.P.D. . . .

It wasn't until I really got involved in the plaintiff's end of the practice, that I started handling the police misconduct cases, and always really wanted to believe that I'm seeing an exception to the rule, while knowing that there's bad cops just like there are bad lawyers, bad doctors. But I found out, I would say in the early 1990s, that the L.A.P.D. certainly had some very deep-rooted problems.

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