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Law & Disorder in Los Angeles

Report of the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department

by the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department
228 pp.

Daryl Gates: A Portrait of Frustration’

by Bella Stumbo
Los Angeles Times

I have a memory as long as forever.”

Daryl F. Gates1

1.

Rodney Glenn King is a big man—225 pounds draped uneasily over a six foot, three-inch frame. His curriculum vitae is not uncommon in the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles. He has a reading disability, is a high-school dropout (six months before graduating from John Muir High in Pasadena), is married (wife Crystal and two sons), is an unemployed construction worker, and a jailbird. In November 1989, Rodney King robbed a Korean grocer in Monterey Park of $200 (his weapon was a two-foot-long tire iron), and was caught ten days later because the grocer was able to write down the license number of his white Hyundai as he drove away from the scene of the crime. Rodney King was arrested, pleaded guilty to robbery two, and as a first offender was sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary at Susanville, one of the lesser of the twenty-three California slammers, but still no country club.

With time off both for time served and for good time (one day off the sentence for every good day served; a good day, considering the overcrowded state of California’s prisons—84,000 inmates in a system with room for 48,0002—is essentially a day when the prisoner is not caught knifing someone), Rodney King did a year and was paroled two days after Christmas 1990. A week later he found work as a temporary laborer at Dodger Stadium. Late on the evening of Saturday March 2, 1991, Rodney King, twenty-five, barely two months out of Susanville, mellow with booze and marijuana (both parole violations), hopped into that same white Hyundai with two friends, Bryant Allen and Freddie Helms, and headed north on the Foothill Freeway, boredom their companion, destination unknown, just cruising around to see what the night might bring. It was a ride whose conclusion would send shock waves not just through the city and county of Los Angeles, but around the world as well.3

Shortly after midnight—it was now March 3—a husband-and-wife team of California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers, Melanie and Timothy Singer, saw the Hyundai traveling at a high rate of speed, upward of 100 mph. Turning on their siren and emergency lights, the Singers gave chase, first on the freeway and then on the surface streets of Pacoima. Mistakenly afraid (as he later claimed) that a speeding bust was a parole violation that could send him back to prison, Rodney King ran a series of red lights on Foothill Boulevard and did not slow down. By now two patrol cars from the Foothill Division of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) had joined the pursuit, which continued until Rodney King finally pulled to a stop at a red light in Lake View Terrace, at the corner of Foothill and Osborne, across from the Mountain Back Apartments. One of the LAPD cars radioed “Code 6,” indicating that the chase had concluded. Following “felony stop” procedures, Timothy Singer used a loudspeaker to order the occupants out of the Hyundai; passengers Allen and Helms (who as it happened was subsequently killed in an unrelated automobile accident) exited on the right side and were immediately “proned” on the ground and handcuffed.4

According to the initial “End of Shift” report filed by Sergeant Stacey Koon, the senior LAPD supervisor on the scene, Rodney King at first refused to leave the car and then when he did comply, he offered so much resistance that he had to be subdued by force, including two jolts from Koon’s Taser electric stun gun and a “torrent of power strokes, jabs, etc., to arms, torso and legs” from the two-foot-long Monadnock P24 solid aluminum batons carried by all uniformed LAPD officers on patrol, the blows in this instance administered by LAPD Officers Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, and Theodore Briseno.

In his report, Koon downplayed the seriousness of King’s injuries, claiming they appeared to be light: “Several facial cuts due to contact with asphalt. Of a minor nature. A split inner lip. Subject appeared oblivious to pain.” Koon also said he believed that Rodney King was under the influence of PCP, which is why he was so difficult to subdue. In their “Use of Force” reports, Powell and Wind took the same line, listing Rodney King’s injuries as only “contusions and abrasions.” Rodney King, according to boxes checked in the Use of Force reports, had “attacked officers,” he had “continued some resistance,” and he had “increased resistance.” When Rodney King was finally restrained, an ambulance was called, and he was taken to the emergency room at Pacifica Hospital in the San Fernando Valley.

To the Foothill Division watch commander, Lieutenant P.J. Conmay, the Rodney King episode was a righteous bust, the highly efficient arrest of a drunk, stoned, and paroled felon after a high-speed chase. Rodney King, Conmay’s report discreetly concluded, was “ultimately subdued by several baton strikes.” No additional information was requested to complete the record, no unnecessary question asked. As written in the reports, the incident could have appeared as a scene on Dragnet or Adam 12 or T.J. Hooker or The Blue Knight or Starsky and Hutch or SWAT or any of those other television series to which the LAPD has given its imprimatur over the past forty years by lending its files, prestige, and technical support, shows the department has shrewdly used to buff its image nationally, becoming in effect America’s police department in the same way the Dallas Cowboys had become America’s team.

For the LAPD, these shows functioned as free network promotional spots, subliminally recruiting young men (and with much official reluctance young women as well) by showing what it was “To Protect and To Serve,” as the department’s motto had it, in the land of eternal sunshine, where every bust was a potential miniseries, and every cop looked like Martin Milner or Jack Webb. In the official records maintained in the computer memory banks at Parker Center, the LAPD headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, Rodney King’s arrest was a textbook bust, one more example of the “pro-active” policing the LAPD so cherished, a message over the grapevine to the minority community as well that dragging the main with a felony rap sheet on Saturday night could earn hard time and a split lip. And so the incident might have been filed and forgotten had it not been for a new Sony Handicam purchased by a tenant on the second floor of those Mountain Back Apartments at the corner of Foothill and Osborne in Lake View Terrace.

2.

The tenant’s name was George Holliday, and like Oliver Sipple, the former US marine who wrestled Sara Jane Moore to earth when she tried to assassinate Gerald Ford in San Francisco in 1976, he is one of those people who has five minutes of fame and a place in history because he just happened to be in the right place at the right time. George Holliday is thirtyone, and he manages a plumbing business in North Hollywood. Like one of every six American families, he owns a camcorder,5 and to master it he had been filming one thing and another, from a cat licking its paw to Arnold Schwarzenegger on location in a local neighborhood bar shooting a scene for Terminator II. Drawn to his terrace that Saturday night by the noise of what appeared to be a police incident across the street, he aimed his new Sony sound camera and began shooting, the scene lit by a noisy police helicopter hovering overhead shining its spotlight down on the melee below. There were policemen and patrol cars and sirens and flashing lights, a display of force that only a street hit on a Mafia don produces in a city like New York. It is the ability to record the immediate that gives the camcorder its enormous appeal, but George Holliday did not realize what he had shot until he put the tape into his VCR and let it run. What he saw there bore scant resemblance to the accounts of the incident on the Use of Force reports filed by Sergeant Koon and Officers Powell, Briseno, and Wind.

When George Holliday began shooting, Rodney King was already on the ground, with the wires shot from Sergeant Koon’s Taser gun clearly seen coming from his body, his resistance minimal. Other than Sergeant Koon, the senior officer at the site, and Officers Powell, Briseno, and Wind, there were nineteen other uniformed LAPD officers milling around (the twenty-three LAPD officers included one black male, one black female, four Latino males, two white females, and fifteen white males), plus the two in the police chopper hovering above, and four other uniformed officers from two other law enforcement agencies, the Singers from the CHP, and two officers from the Los Angeles Unified School District who had joined the chase. On the tape, Rodney King is seen being hit fifty-six times on the neck, torso, arms, legs, elbows, knees, ankles, and joints with police batons wielded by Officers Powell, Wind, and Briseno, and kicked an additional six times (with Briseno the primary kicker) before five or six officers swarmed over him, placing him in handcuffs and cordcuffs to restrain both his arms and his legs.

Watching the baton strokes as they were administered on the tape was like watching lumberjacks trying to cut down a tree; Officer Wind expended so much energy getting in his whacks that he had to take a short nap at Pacifica Hospital, where he and another officer, a woman, had escorted Rodney King. Perhaps the tape’s most extraordinary aspect, however, was not what it showed but what it did not show: it did not show a single one of the nineteen other uniformed officers on the ground at the corner of Osborne and Foothill moving in to stop the beating, even when Rodney King, on the pavement, stunned by the Taser, was clearly no threat. (Nor did any of these nineteen otherwise non-involved officers report the full nature of the incident officially to their superiors at the end of their tours.)

Injuries “light,” according to the reports filed by Sergeant Koon and Officers Powell, Wind, and Briseno. Scrapes from the asphalt. Contusions. Abrasions. Of these there were plenty, but as the hospital emergency room staff worked on him it was discovered that Rodney King also had a broken ankle, a fractured cheekbone, eleven broken bones at the base of his skull, facial nerve damage, a severe concussion, and that the force of the kicks and baton blows had knocked fillings from his teeth; in all twenty stitches were needed to sew him up.

On Monday, George Holliday telephoned the Foothill station to say that he had witnessed an incident Saturday night involving a motorist beaten by LAPD officers. He did not volunteer that he had videotaped the incident, and the desk officer was not interested enough to ask for any details. George Holliday did ask as to the condition of the motorist, but the officer replied that “we [the LAPD] do not give out information like that.” Holliday also was not aware that another citizen had come in person to the the Foothill station that same Monday morning, trying to file a complaint about the incident Saturday night in Lake View Terrace, the complainant in this case being Rodney King’s brother Paul, who by this point was fully aware of the extent of the injuries inflicted on his brother. Paul King was kept waiting for forty minutes, and then when the desk sergeant finally spoke to him, he asked Paul King, according to King’s later sworn testimony, “whether he had ever been in trouble. Paul King responded that he was there to talk about Rodney King, not himself.”6 The sergeant replied that Rodney King was in “big trouble,” because he had quite possibly put a police officer’s life in danger. At no time did the sergeant fill out a personnel complaint form. When Paul King finally left the Foothill station that Monday, he knew, as he was to testify, “I hadn’t made a complaint.”7

  1. 1

    To Bella Stumbo, Los Angeles Times, August 16, 1982.

  2. 2

    Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (Verso, 1990), p. 228.

  3. 3

    I am indebted here as I am throughout this piece to the editors, reporters, and columnists of the Los Angeles Times, whose coverage of the King case provides an extraordinary record of the events of March 3, 1991, and their aftermath.

  4. 4

    Report of the Independent Commission on The Los Angeles Police Department (Los Angeles: 1991), pp. 4–6. A summary of the report is available by writing to the Independent Commission, Suite 1919, 400 South Hope Street, Los Angeles, CA 90071-2899.

  5. 5

    Los Angeles Times, July 25, 1991

  6. 6

    Report of the Independent Commission, p. 10.

  7. 7

    Report of the Independent Commission, p. 10.

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