Police Brutality and Racial Violence

Police brutality and abuse is one of the worst human rights violations in America today. Police have constantly used the discretion at their disposal to brutalize, molest, beat, and choke citizens without any respect of their dignity. Over the years they have indulged in the ruthless killing, of unarmed citizens and this has led to endless problems that exist between law enforcement and the community. The police brutalities especially the killing of men of color like Rodney King in California, Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray and many others have made people of color in America to believe that black lives do not matter in the eyes of law enforcement anymore. These acts have contributed a great deal to the growing problems between the community.

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In 1991, Rodney King became the first unarmed black man to be brutally beaten by Police within the United States, after which massive riots broke out all over America. Racial tensions were high, and the community perceived this as a significant setback in African-American and white race relations. The important thing about the case was how it affected the LAPD once the riots were over and the neighborhoods had somewhat settled down. Because of the Rodney King beating, and the subsequent riots, the LAPD transformed into a diverse, multicultural, and inclusive police department.

First, it would be important to go through the background of the case, and to talk about who King was and why the violence that occurred was so excruciatingly engraved in the American public’s racial consciousness. Rodney King was tragically beaten in LA and was one of the first unarmed black men to raise questions about white police brutality in America. According to Biography (2018), the controversy started when police officers were unfairly acquitted after badly beating King and even being recorded on a video.

This sparked riots that led a chain reaction on the streets of LA around 1992. Rodney King was born in Sacramento in 1965 and was apprehended by LA police following a chase in 1991. When the officers caught Rodney, they removed him from his car and beat him, while an onlooker, George Holliday, videotaped the scene (Biography, 2018). The video, released by several YouTube users, shows the way officers apprehended Rodney, dragged him out of the car and beat him while he was defending himself against blows from batons and punches.

You can see Rodney trying to protect himself in the beginning, but then he gives up, the heady officers continue bashing him while he lays prostrate on the ground (Sanfilipo, 2016). The video is a horrifying glimpse of how police brutality, when unchecked, can reach such staggering levels of violence and horror. According to Biography (2018), what made the case even more controversial—aside from the beating itself—was the fact that the four officers from the Los Angeles Police Department were only initially charged with “assault with a deadly weapon and excessive use of force by a police officer” (Biography, 2018), but were left to go, virtually scot-free, after the trial, which lasted only 3 months. A jury consisting primarily of white members acquitted two of the officers, which sparked outrage within the community and led to riots in 1992 directly related to the beating (Biography, 2018).

The racial issues feature prominently in this case. King was a black man who was dreadfully abused by white officers, who later received no penalty for their actions. Upon watching the video, one notes the officers have virtually no reason to be violent with King, and that he is accepting his fate as an arrested man. This brings up important racial issues within America’s already tenuous criminal justice context.

The particularly brutal beating was what sparked riots and outrage in America, a sense of malaise about racial impropriety and failed race relations between blacks and whites. According to CNN Wire Staff (2012), what makes it particularly difficult is that King himself has forgiven the officers for beating him nearly to death, using their night sticks repeatedly to severely injure the man. King was, at the time, on parole, and was driving from a friend’s house after having been drinking. When King saw a police car chasing him, he feared once again landing in prison, and so he decided to flee. King was struck over 40 times with batons, and had severe injuries requiring surgery that lasted for several hours (CNN Wire Staff, 2012). It was the nature of the beating, which occurred with a helpless and unarmed man, that eventually ignited the African-American and Latino community into protest. Race was the biggest issue presented and was immediately cited as the reason for the bating.

In terms of the case, there were four concrete officers involved, and the legal proceedings were considered unfair, etching a deep scar into America’s racialized history and sparking riots in LA. The four officers in the case were Timothy Wind, Laurence Powell, Stacey Coon and Theodore Briseno, and two of them were acquitted of all charges. This spawned massive riot occurring in the South-Central part of Los Angeles, where over 50 people died and 2,000 sustained injuries. There were about 9,500 arrests for arson, looting and rioting, and $1 billion for various property damages. Even King came out on one of the days of the riots and asked for peace to be established (Biography, 2018). The responses to the riots, which were also quite brutal, led to the resignation of Chief Darryl Gates, the LAPD department head. He was considered, by the minorities in the area and in America more generally, to represent “institutionalized racial intolerance” (Biography, 2018).

After the incident, Willie Williams, an African-American police chief, took the position of department head and incited further investigations into the riots (Biography, 2018). Americans—not just blacks but all Americans—believed the beating of King was deeply unfair and called it an act of institutionalized racial violence because of Rodney’s race. The riots sparked an interest in institutional reform, and after the resignation of white police chief Darryl Gates, an African-American police chief came to work for the LAPD. The riots were initialized because blacks found it to be a case of violence enacted by a white officer on an unarmed black male.

The riots were brutal and were a way for the community to respond to the crime committed, but King himself came out and denounced them as extreme. According to Dungee (1992), there was a crowd chanting King’s name as police cars were overturned near City Hall in downtown Atlanta, in Georgia. One LAPD employee, who did not give his name, says he was shaken up and angry about the verdict received by the guilty parties, and that he wanted to participate in the riots. Other police officers in the LAPD and around America felt the same, but everything changed when Rodney King arrived on the scene on May 1st, in 1992, addressing the crowd who were rioting in his name.

He was shocked by the level of violence and anarchy that was occurring because of the beating and suggested there was no place for this kind of aggression, which was unproductive and destructive. “This can’t help anything,” (Dungee, 1991) King calmly said, repeatedly asking for the rioting to stop. This source says that 58 people had died because of injuries sustained indirectly or directly from the riots, and that over 2,700 were injured.

What differentiated these riots from others was that they spread throughout the US, even ending up in places like Long Beach and the San Fernando Valley (Dungee, 1991). King himself witnessed a man who was lying on the ground being shot, who he says will never return to be with his family again. Some of the members of the prosecution, including Darryl Gates, tried to depict Rodney as a monster and an “aberration” (Dungee, 1991) who did not have the capacity to think reasonably, or to help bring his accusers to justice (Rodney was a recluse who later refused to take part in some of the trial proceedings). In fact, King was likely traumatized by the incidents, wanting to stay out of the public eye, particularly in lieu of the riots that had already claimed over 50 lives. The community responded to the crime against King by initiating national riots, but these turned out incredibly violent.

The riots were particularly harmful to many communities, and witnesses recall seeing participants get beaten and even killed. According to Rogers (2017), a tow truck driver by the name of Dee Young had stopped to get a hamburger at his favorite place, and saw that people were carrying alcohol from a local liquor store. On live television, tow truck driver Reginald Denny was apprehended by black men, pulled out of his truck, and beaten almost to death. Bobby Green, a black man driving a truck, went to the intersection to save Denny from his attackers (Rogers, 2017). In the neighborhood, blacks were perceived as bandits, and were sometimes not allowed into stores, or were viewed as thieves, and the racial wars extended even to the Korean community.

There were also cases of mistrust aimed at the Korean community and local shop owners, and residents of the area where the dominant riot occurred report feeling afraid that there was looting, and equipment being stolen. One young woman cites being afraid of the barrage of bullets that regularly flew over her head, to the point where she was instructed to stay in her home and stay low, under her window (Rogers, 2017). Most of those who had witnessed the riots agree that they were brutal and violent, an unnecessary event spurred on by a dreadfully unfair conviction and a media hype storm. The aftermath of the riots undoubtedly lasted long, with many of the community members venturing outside of Sacramento, returning only much later once race relations calmed down.

The riots, which lasted a long time and prompted surprisingly little response from the LAPD, likely had a significant effect on the way the LAPD decided to respond to the issue. In her NPR article, Bates (2016) looks back on the Rodney King riots and cites there was another case of anti-black crime that occurred around the same time as the Rodney King incident. In South-Central Los Angeles, around the area King was beaten, a Korean supermarket owner shot African-American Latasha Harlins, who he said was trying to steal juice from his store. The Korean owner, much like the cops who killed King, merely received a reprimand and a $500 fine, which sparked further riots within the community (Bates, 2016).

This also prompted the African-American community’s anger with the American Criminal Justice System which they perceived targeted them unfairly. Meanwhile, the LAPD strengthened its core personnel, and reporters suggest that the police grew even more hostile toward blacks, leading to more rigid defense strategies and violence. Some have even called this police tactic, which was largely centered around containment of violence, as “paramilitary policing” (Bates, 2016).

Blacks felt targeted because they were allegedly arrested for petty crimes, and sometimes for no reason. Joe Domanick, a writer who had documented the riots, said there was little response from the LAPD, even during the times when black and Hispanic looters became stealing goods from stores that had been made vulnerable because of rioting. Thousands of business properties were damaged in the ensuing events, and children could not go to school for at least several days, during the brunt of the riots (Bates, 2016). The LAPD failed to act on behalf of its citizens.

Media portrayals of Rodney King differed, and the media undoubtedly influenced how the public viewed the event. According to Bowen (2015), the issue was framed from a civil rights perspective, under a “frame of black hardship,” (Bowen, 2015), which positions King as the victim brutally beaten by oppressive law enforcement authorities. Many media sources also depicted King in a wheelchair, displayed his injuries prominently and focused on how difficult his life now was, after the beating (Bowen, 2015). While this is true, and King did suffer grievous bodily and psychological harm, it sparked outrage within the community to view, read and hear these messages.

There are varied views about today’s LAPD in terms of how far it has come since the King beating, and while some suggest the LAPD had not changed much, others say it has improved vastly. According to Wells (2017), 25 years after the event, experts say that LAPD is different, mostly because of a consent decree that had occurred between the federal government and the police. At the same time, Jeff Sessions has questioned the legitimacy of these consent decrees, and once again plunged the LAPD into potential future racism.

The killing of mentally ill black man Ezell Ford, whose police attackers were not charged even though they had caused the death of another unarmed black man, sparked more riots and protesting within the community. Some also say that the LAPD is not being transparent and is violating the law when it continuously ignored public records policies. Now, however, more than 30% of the LAPD consists of black members, and there are controls in place that ensure proper investigations are conducted (Wells, 2017).

The consent decree was very important in establishing a better community within the area. It consisted of 187 different paragraphs that were about bringing change to the community and fixing racial problems. The LAPD was required to show, systematically, that they had complied at least to a degree of 94% with the provisions and amendments to policy. In the year, 2002, William Bratton became the police chief, and focused primarily on a diversity platform that recruited racially and ethnically diverse members of the community as Police officers and engaged in more transparent practices. He stressed policing on a community level, denounced the use of aggressive or excessive discipline, and denounced using force. Bratton made an enormous difference, as he specifically developed a police unit tasked with ensuring members were compliant with all decree paragraphs. Officers could now no longer abuse and lie to citizens. Before the incident, “the LAPD refused to indict any of its own” (Wells, 2017), meaning the law enforcement department believed that its crimes would go forever unpunished.

Additionally, because of the riots, which sparked debate about whether police officers within the LAPD knew the communities they patrolled enough to sufficiently interact with and contain crime, additional measures were put in place. According to Wells (2017), the police were not prepared for the riots that occurred in 1992. There was riot gear placed in inconvenient locations, where police could not reach it. Command centers were not properly equipped for communication.

Personnel who was hired for patrolling during the day was let off, to leave work, and when the riots took place, Darryl Gates (the Police chief at the time, within the LAPD) was in another area of the country raising money through a fundraiser. When the Police left the riot areas at Normandie and Florence in the South-Central region, some of them did not return. As well, the officers, who were even encouraged to retreat, did not know the rioters or the community (Wells, 2017). The Federal government found it mandatory to implement meetings that would facilitate unity between officers and the Los Angeles community. Officers would soon be required to get to know important neighborhood families, spoken languages and other details that would foster collaboration and consent (Wells, 2017).

The Rodney King beating was tragic but displays how an event like a brutal beating could have such consequences within a community. Ultimately, the LAPD was able to transform itself and adopt more inclusive and multicultural recruitment practices, which somewhat restored the police department’s reputation. Blacks in America continue to face severe brutality and massive incarceration from the criminal justice system, even though reforms are slowly trying to turn this around. The up rise to Black Lives Matter movements in many cities in America has also raised awareness on police brutality of black men

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Police Brutality and Racial Violence. (2022, Feb 06). Retrieved December 9, 2022 , from
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