1991 March 3

L.A. Police Beat Rodney King; Video Tape Provokes National Outrage


African-American Rodney King was stopped by Los Angeles police, and then beaten by 15 officers. The beating was videotaped by George Holliday. When the tape was broadcast across the country and around the world, it provoked a storm of protest, and eventually led to significant reforms in the LAPD. The impact of the video was powerful because this was arguably the first time ordinary people were able to see a major incident of police brutality.

Four officers were acquitted of criminal charges under state law on April 29, 1992, which provoked a major riot in Los Angeles. The riot resulted in 53 persons killed, 7,000 fires, and over $1 billion worth of property destroyed. The four officers were then indicted on federal civil rights charges, and two were convicted and sentenced to 32 months in prison.

The Rodney King beating case was probably the first significant use of new technologies in recording police misconduct. Cell phone camers later became an even more widely used instrument of police accountability

King sued and won $3.8 million in damages, plus $1.7 million in lawyers’ fees. He had further troubles with the law after the incident, and he died on June 17, 2012, drowning in a swimming pool. Substance abuse apparently contributed to the drowning.

By today’s standards, the video tape of the Rodney King beating used primitive technology. By the time of the national police crisis on 2014-2016, digital cell phone cameras were owned by most people, and the police were rapidly adopting digital police-worn body cameras.

Watch the Tape of the Beating: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SW1ZDIXiuS4

Read excerpts from the Christopher Commission Report on the LAPD: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/journalism/cases/katrina/Human%20Rights%20Watch/uspohtml/uspo73.htm

Learn more: Jerome H. Skolnick and James J. Fyfe, Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force (1993)

Read King’s own story: Rodney King and Lawrence J. Spagnola, The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption (2012)


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