Three decades after Rodney King’s beating, police reform in Los Angeles remains elusive

Thirty years ago on Friday, parts of Los Angeles erupted in unrest after a jury acquitted four White Los Angeles police officers over the videotaped beating of Rodney King, a Black motorist. Stephanie Sy revisits the fallout from the assault on King and examines what has and has not changed since then.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thirty years ago today, parts of Los Angeles erupted in unrest after a jury acquitted four white Los Angeles police officers over the videotaped beating of Rodney King, a Black motorist.

    On this anniversary, Stephanie Sy revisits the fallout from the Rodney King beating and examines what has and has not changed.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    For many longtime Angelenos, the sights and smells of April 29, 1992, are still easily conjured. Smoke spread across L.A. as buildings were set on fire. Images of looting filled television screens, and less visible, the hurt expressed through peaceful protest.

    Rhonda Mitchell, Former 911 Operator: You hear the verdicts, and you hear the one not guilty after another. I was angry. There's no other way for me to say it. I was just furious at the justice system.

    Darnell Hunt, Dean of Social Services, UCLA: When people had expected some type of justice, when it did not happen, it was like another blow. It was like Black lives don't really matter.

  • Connie Rice, Civil Rights Attorney:

    I picked up the phone, and I told my staff: Go get your kids, go home, don't leave your houses. The city is going to blow."

  • Stephanie Sy:

    South Los Angeles, where much of the unrest unfolded, had been home to the city's largest Black population for decades.

    Rhonda Mitchell's family, like many, had settled in L.A.'s Crenshaw district after leaving the South during the Great Migration.

  • Rhonda Mitchell:

    It was just the place to be. Crenshaw was alive. It crackled.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But, in many parts of L.A., tensions between communities of color and the LAPD had been simmering since the last bout of unrest in 1965.

    Mitchell's father, who lived through the Watts uprising, worried history was repeating itself after the Rodney King verdict came down.

  • Rhonda Mitchell:

    During the riots, I called him and I asked him how he was doing. And he was weary. He was sad about what was going on in the neighborhood.

  • Connie Rice:

    There was a lot of pressure and a lot of kindling, and it just took one spark.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Connie Rice was an attorney for the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund at the time.

  • Connie Rice:

    African Americans were furious at LAPD for the humiliation, for the gratuitously cruel policing, for the constant harassment.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    For nearly a week after the acquittals, long frustrated Angelenos took to the streets. Nearly 10,000 military troops were deployed to restore order. By the end, more than 50 people were dead. Police made over 10,000 arrests, and people had burned and vandalized $1 billion worth of property.

  • Darnell Hunt:

    It's like Martin Luther King said a long time ago these types of events are the voice of the voiceless.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Darnell Hunt is the dean of social sciences at UCLA. In 1992, he was a graduate student and a budding social scientist observing and documenting the events.

  • Darnell Hunt:

    I had my camcorder, and I was walking around town trying to get a sense of what was happening and how it compared to what I was seeing on television news.

    And I ran into this old man, who just gestured me over, and he pointed to a store over here. And he said: "See that? That's my record store. And I would sacrifice that in order to make sure that our voices are heard."

  • Stephanie Sy:

    But some people would hear that, and they would say, but these were their businesses.

  • Darnell Hunt:

    Yes.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    This was their community.

  • Darnell Hunt:

    Well, obviously, for him, he had lived his whole life as a Black man. He had experienced what injustice can be. And he was willing to make that sacrifice

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Media coverage of the time focused on the looting, the burning and violence, without much context for the socioeconomic disparities and police treatment of people of color in Los Angeles that had been fomenting resentment since the 1960s.

    On that front, progress has been mixed. Most news reporters didn't capture the nuance, says Hunt, who's written books about media and race.

  • Darnell Hunt:

    Overlooking the underlying causes, the structural causes that — like inequality, racism, racial profiling, economic insecurity, lack of employment, disinvestment in inner cities, all the things that created stress that led to the explosion that was triggered by the Rodney King beating verdicts.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Rhonda Mitchell was a 911 operator for the LAPD at the time and witnessed the chaos erupting through the emergency phone lines.

  • Rhonda Mitchell:

    We were not answering calls unless it was really about life and death.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    She had taken the job for the pay and security, but, in the aftermath of the verdict, her loyalties were divided.

  • Rhonda Mitchell:

    It was a struggle to work for the police department and hear what went on and know and hear the derogatory remarks about people of color.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You would hear racist comments?

  • Rhonda Mitchell:

    Yes. And that's where it gets a little muddled for me, because we want the police in our community. We want our community safe. We don't want drug dealers all over the place.

    But the police didn't know how to interact with us. The trust had already been lost there between us and the police.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The problems at the LAPD were partly addressed with diversity recruitment. The force is now majority people of color. But police killings of Black and brown Angelenos are still often in the headlines, and accountability is rare.

    Thirty years later, Connie Rice is still trying to help reform the police. She partnered with the LAPD to help create the Community Safety Partnership, with a holistic approach to working in neighborhoods where mistrust still runs deep.

  • Connie Rice:

    The transition has to be from search and destroy, mass incarceration, shock and awe policing, to wraparound safety, heal and build, guardian policing. Gladiator to guardian, that's the culture change.

    But you can't have that change without all of the other sectors changing too, civil rights lawyers, the residents, government agencies. We ask cops to do too much.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Rice says she has found like-minded police chiefs with the same goals, but that the message hasn't trickled down to the rank and file.

  • Connie Rice:

    If you stick people in a hellhole, and you send cops into make sure that what's in that ghetto stays there, you're going to get what we get, which is riots, rebellions, uprisings that are triggered by a bad shooting, a bad stop. We're one more video away from that kind of explosion again.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Really? You think it is still possible?

  • Connie Rice:

    I'm afraid it's going to devolve again to a level of frustration because there isn't enough change.

    The political momentum has slowed. The federal legislation stalled. So, while you have seen a huge change in the culture and the Black Lives Matter movement has gone global, but it hasn't touched the DNA of American policing.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Have the underlying problems that existed 30 years ago in South Los Angeles been addressed?

  • Darnell Hunt:

    I mean, all the basic measures of economic well-being across the different racial and ethnic groups, there's been very, very little progress since 1992. And, in some cases, we have gone backwards.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    So, 1992 really did change your perspective?

  • Rhonda Mitchell:

    Oh, 1992 changed everything for me. South L.A. could feel like cocoon, as I went to the same shops. Those shops didn't exist anymore after 1992. The world…

  • Stephanie Sy:

    They were burned down.

  • Rhonda Mitchell:

    They were burned down. The world wasn't like it used to be in 1992. It changed. It shifted.

    And I have kept — that shift has stayed with me since that time, so that's why I wear this necklace.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In Rhonda's old neighborhood in South L.A., a new metro line is being built, the center of a multimillion-dollar revitalization project that aims to bring opportunity, while celebrating the legacy of Black L.A., a legacy of creativity, strength, and continuing struggle.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in Los Angeles.

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