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.
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
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.
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
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
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. . . .
Former President of the L.A. Police Commission
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
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.
Los Angeles civil rights attorney representing numerous Rampart clients in
civil suits stemming from Perez's allegations
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
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
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
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
home · rampart scandal · "bad cops" · race & policing · aftermath · connecting the dots
discussion · interviews · video · synopsis · tapes & transcripts · press · credits
FRONTLINE · pbs online · wgbh
police car photo copyright ©2001 some guy
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation