After nearly thirty years of struggle and continued efforts to be more inclusive and diverse, the country is once again in the throes of unrest, clamoring for real change. As the nation strives for answers and ways forward in the wake of George Floyd’s death, it is helpful to look back. How did we get here? How can we help make lasting changes? Read on to learn more.
Terrence Floyd lifted the bullhorn to his mask-covered mouth and begged the angry Minneapolis crowd for calm:
“Let’s switch it up ya’ll. Let’s switch it up. Do this peacefully please,” Floyd said, standing where his brother, George, died May 25 as a police officer pressed a knee into his throat, a death recorded on video and broadcast nationwide.
“I highly doubt — no, no — I know he would not want you to be doing this and I’m not saying to people who — whoever’s doing it — relax. Peace on the left, justice on the right.”
A week after his brother’s death, Terrence Floyd’s short speech — given as Americans swept up debris and boarded up smashed windows resulting from looting and arson in Minneapolis, Santa Monica, Long Beach, Boston, New York and other cities — recalled 1992, when Rodney King stepped in front of cameras in Los Angeles following days of unrest to encourage peace: “People. I just want to say, can’t we all get along? Can’t we all get along?”
Floyd’s death, made that much more horrific with his pleas of “I can’t breathe” as Officer Derek Chauvin held his knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes, has again triggered demands for police reform and an end to racism — the same cry that occurred almost 30 years ago when King survived a brutal videotaped beating at the hands of the LAPD.
For those old enough to remember, the peaceful protests and subsequent looting following Floyd’s death look like history repeating itself following King’s beating.
And it determined that while reform in law enforcement has made significant strides following the King beating, it still has far to go.
King’s encounter with the police remains one of the most shocking scenes to top a news broadcast. March 4, 1991, KTLA aired 90 seconds of amateur video that showed four police officers wailing as they crashed their batons into a seemingly helpless man.
The beating of Rodney King became a seminal moment for the Los Angeles Police Department, Southern California and law enforcement agencies across the country. It would lead to riots that changed the course of how the LAPD operated and why today other recorded moments of police interactions with people of color continue to spark outcries for justice.
Again and again, as two dozen officers stood by, four officers struck King, a 25-year-old Black man who quickly became one of the famous figures in Los Angeles history.
About 12:45 a.m. that day, California Highway Patrol officers tried to pull King’s Hyundai over for speeding on the 210 Freeway in Sun Valley. King didn’t stop, leading a chase for eight miles until he exited at Paxton Street and stopped on Foothill Boulevard.
He was now in the LAPD’s jurisdiction.
King’s two passengers gave up immediately when King finally pulled over, but King, who was drunk, did not move quickly. The officers, who contended he was resisting, shot him twice with a 50,000-volt Taser gun.
The wires were hanging from King’s body when plumber George Holliday in his nearby apartment heard what was happening, grabbed his Sony Handycam and ran out onto his balcony.
Los Angeles police Sgt. Stacey Koon, together with officers Laurence Powell, Theodore Briseno and Timothy Wind, instantaneously also became household names.
“When I got out … onto the balcony, they were already hitting him,” Holliday told NBC News.
Holliday kept his lens focused on the officers as they pummeled King with dozens of blows. One officer struck King 10 times as King sat on his knees. King tried to stand but fell as officers continued to whack his legs and midsection with batons. One officer kicked King and another stomped on his neck.
King was hit more than 50 times.
“They weren’t beating him to subdue him,” one witness told the Los Angeles Times. “It was like they were really angry.”
Today, Holliday would have posted his video on social media and it would have gone viral. In 1991, Holliday wasn’t sure what to do. The next day, he contacted KTLA and dropped off his video. Producers looked at the recording and aired it that night on the station’s 10 p.m. newscast. They paid Holliday $500.
The video was quickly broadcast on CNN and other Los Angeles stations, as well as on national networks, shocking viewers around the world.
In a week, Koon, Powell, Briseno and Wind were charged with police brutality.
Reporters discovered that three of the four indicted officers had been named in previous excessive force complaints.
Computer and radio messages sent among officers after the beating raised concerns. Powell and Wind, for example, had sent a message describing an earlier domestic dispute they had handled as “right out of ‘Gorillas in the Mist,’” a 1988 movie about naturalist Dian Fossey and her work with mountain gorillas in Rwanda.
By April 1, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley established the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department, a 10-member group meant to evaluate the LAPD’s structure and operations related to the use of force.
Chaired by attorney William Christopher, who would later become President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, the panel that became known as the “Christopher Commission,” investigated what had happened to King, and its implications.
According to the panel’s report, numerous aspects of that night concerned members. Why were officers so open with their shocking conduct? Why did a sergeant seem to direct the violence? Why were so many officers in attendance at the end of a chase despite being told they weren’t needed? Why did so many never report it? Did the officers’ radio comments and computer transmissions before and after the beating show racial motivation?
By July, the Christopher Commission issued its findings, compiling a list of problem officers and finding the LAPD needed significant change. According to the panel, internal affairs investigators had substantiated only a tiny percentage of excessive force complaints from the public; large numbers of officers repeatedly used excessive force and management failed to control them. Dozens of officers who had four to 16 complaints made against them continued to work. Many investigations failed to question witnesses.
The report, which included interviews with hundreds of officers, discovered racism within the force and proved a widely held view in minority communities that police misconduct was common.
The commission wrote: “The King beating refocused public attention on longstanding complaints by African Americans, Latinos and Asians that LAPD officers frequently treat minorities differently from whites, more often using disrespectful and abusive language, employing unnecessarily intrusive practices such as the ‘prone-out’ and engaging in use of excessive force when dealing with minorities.”
The report suggested that the changing demographics of the city heightened the need for a sustained effort to end racist attitudes toward the public, as well as biases within the force’s own ranks, where White officers sometimes used slurs to refer to Latino, Black and Asian colleagues.
Additionally, the commission found that the LAPD emphasized crime control over crime prevention, using tough techniques and procedures from the past and maintaining an “us versus them” mentality. The panel recommended numerous changes, including community-based policing policies, where officers worked with residents, not against them to solve neighborhood problems and reduce crime.
By the end of that year, as the Rodney King case continued in court, a judge who was concerned about whether the officers could receive a fair trial in Downtown Los Angeles moved the trial to Simi Valley, a city with an almost all-White population. The move made many Los Angeles residents, both White and minority, wonder if justice would be served.
On April 29, 1992, the fear was realized. Jurors acquitted the officers of most of the charges. Fueled by the decision and festering anger over the shooting death of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, a Black girl shot by a Korean store grocer just 13 days after the King beating, rioting began at Florence and Normandie avenues in South Los Angeles. In parts of Los Angeles and surrounding cities, rioting quickly grew out of control. At one intersection, trucker Reginald Denny was dragged from his cab and beaten senseless as horrified viewers watched on live television.
Crowds stormed businesses, setting fires to convenience stores, markets, dry cleaners and more. They looted furniture, alcohol and other merchandise, dragging it along the street as if rules no longer existed. A mob in South Los Angeles dragged driver Reginald Denny from his truck and beat him senseless as a television helicopter conveyed the scene live to viewers. Business owners toting rifles climbed to their rooftops ready to shoot anybody who tried to enter.
Rioters overturn a parking attendant booth at the LAPD Parker Center in downtown Los Angeles during the 1992 riots. | Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images
Los Angeles police officers held back, nowhere to be seen. In the next few days, the California National Guard, U.S. Army soldiers and Marines were called to restore order, creating the unusual sight of military encampments at intersections on American streets.
As residents swept up the debris, the mood turned toward healing, to enacting reform, and to launching investigations into how the third-largest police force in the nation operated and handled usage of force. After firing longtime Police Chief Daryl Gates, who championed tough tactics, battering rams and large numbers of arrests to defeat crime, the city hired its first Black police chief, Willie Williams.
The city’s leaders and residents looked toward reforming the LAPD, its philosophies and tactics, the root causes and effects of the riots, and the LAPD’s response. Former federal judge and FBI and CIA Director William Webster was appointed to lead a new commission charged with examining what had happened and how to prevent it from ever happening again.
In releasing his report, Webster said, “This city is plagued by hostility, rage and resentment in many areas … where minorities and economically-deprived citizens believe the LAPD did not treat them with respect or extend the same level of protection as elsewhere.”
In 1993, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted the acquitted police officers for allegedly violating King’s civil rights. Following that trial, jurors found Powell and Koon guilty, but acquitted Wind and Briseno. Powell and Koon were sentenced to 30 months in prison.
In the years since, the LAPD turned to reworking its image.
“Former Chief Gates attributed the riots of 1992 to the leadership failures of just two individuals in the department; he did not view it as an organizational issue,” retired LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, who served from 2009-2018, wrote in an April 27, 2017 Los Angeles Times piece.
“I very respectfully disagree with my former chief on this issue,” Beck wrote. “I think the Los Angeles Police Department as an organization had everything to do with those awful days in the spring of 1992. In the preceding decade, our style of policing was aggressive, confrontational and above all, ineffective.”
Over the years, the LAPD began efforts to hire a more diverse force, including increased numbers of Black, Latino and Asian officers, women, and members of the community. The department instituted community-based policing, which involves meeting and working with community groups, faith organizations and neighborhood watch to prevent crime and improve relations between police and citizens.
The LAPD instituted new training procedures for dealing with confrontations, including techniques to try to de-escalate situations and to avoid force. The department has its own watchdog, an inspector general, who investigates controversial aspects of the force.
In 2000, however, another scandal involving corrupt Rampart division gang detectives sparked more reform. This time, the U.S. Department of Justice moved in, enacting a consent decree that allowed federal officials to scrutinize the LAPD’s management and actions.
As time passed, new chiefs, including Bernard Parks, a long-time Black officer who would eventually become a City Councilman, and William Bratton, a former New York and Boston chief, worked to institute many of the reforms needed in the department. Beck followed.
The District Attorney’s Office now publishes online reports of officer-involved shootings once investigations are completed.
Still, problems arise in confrontations between the public, LAPD officers, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the dozens of municipal departments throughout Southern California.
As every citizen holding a smart phone became a George Holliday capable of recording routine interactions with officers, controversial videos hit YouTube and newscasts regularly. Shootings of Black men continue to ignite anger.
Like King before them, their names top the news: Ezell Ford, shot by LAPD officers in 2014, in South Los Angeles; Ryan Twyman, an unarmed 24-year-old killed by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies in 2019 near 132nd and South San Pedro streets; sixteen-year-old Anthony Weber shot by deputies in Westmont in 2018.
Community groups protest, demanding investigations, charges and transparency.
In March, voters approved a ballot measure primarily championed by Black women to give the Los Angeles County Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission permanent power to subpoena documents from the agency.
In Los Angeles County, challengers to District Attorney Jackie Lacey called for outside agencies to investigate police officers in shootings. Black Lives Matter organizers criticize her for not charging police officers, a claim Lacey denies, saying she is simply following the law.
Controversial deaths trigger protests and anger in other cities as well: Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, which led to violent skirmishes in the street, pitting police in armored vehicles against people on foot.
Other names across the country became famous: Stephon Clark in Sacramento; Eric Garner in New York, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Along with Floyd, they are now listed alongside King as historical figures for communities demanding change in how police patrol and respect minority neighborhoods.
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in his unsuccessful presidential campaign, recently apologized for his city’s stop-and-frisk policies, which allowed police to target people of color. Former President Bill Clinton apologized for aspects of a crime bill he signed into law during his term that resulted in mass incarcerations of Black people.
This year’s District Attorney race in Los Angeles County is highlighted by reform candidates wanting to rework how the prosecutor’s office handles drug crimes, deals with the mentally ill, and investigates officers’ usage of force.
“We now believe that there is no true safety without public trust, that serving the Constitution by protecting the rights of individuals is the ultimate goal of policing, and that relationships and partnerships are essential to policing in our city,” Beck wrote in his 2017 piece.
“The LAPD and I were forever changed by the 1992 riots. Sometimes change can occur only because of crisis. It is my promise to Los Angeles that we will never forget those lessons so dearly learned and that we will never fail you again.”
“George Holliday, who taped Rodney King beating, urges others to share videos, June 9, 2015, NBC News, https://www.nbcnews.com/nightly-news/george-holliday-who-taped-rodney-king-beating-urges-others-share-n372551
“Meet the man who recorded the world’s first viral video,” May 25, 2017, El Pais, https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2017/05/25/inenglish/1495709209_218886.html
“Accounts of Rodney Glen King’s arrest describe repeated striking and kicking of the suspect,” March 7, 1991, Los Angeles Times, https://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-accounts-of-rodney-glen-kings-arrest-19910307-story.html
“Rodney King riot: Timeline of key events,” April 26, 2017, AP, https://apnews.com/fa4d04d8281443fc8db0e27d6be52081/Rodney-King-riot:-Timeline-of-key-events
L.A. Is Warned of New Unrest, Vows Emergency Plans, Oct. 22, 1992, Los Angeles Times, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1992-10-22-mn-912-story.html
“The Christopher Commission on Tuesday issued a 228-page report on the activities of the Los Angeles Police Department.” Here are excerpts:, July 10, 1991, Los Angeles Times, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1991-07-10-mn-1962-story.html
Los Angeles riots figure Rodney King found dead, June 18, 2012, BBC https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-18478979
The project to digitize the records from the Los Angeles Webster Commission and the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department has been made possible by a major grant to the USC Libraries from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.
Top Image: Rioters overturn a parking attendant booth at the LAPD Parker Center in downtown Los Angeles during the 1992 riots. | Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images