I began this essay on the beating of Rodney King intending to share facts that would add perspective to the infamous videotape. I didn’t believe that the tape told the whole story. My goal was not to excuse the behavior of the officers. I hoped to understand the reason Sergeant Stacey Koon directed officers Lawrence Powell, Timothy Wind and Ted Brisneo to beat King the night of March 3, 1991.
First, I read Koon’s account in his book Presumed Guilty – The Tragedy of the Rodney King Affair. Koon was the highest ranking officer present when King was beaten. Koon was directly involved in the case and within feet of the beating. I thought I had an accurate picture of what happened. Then, I read Lying Eyes – The Truth Behind the Corruption and Brutality of the LAPD and the Beating of Rodney King by Tom Owens. Owens was hired by Rodney King’s attorney to conduct an independent investigation of the beating in preparation for King’s civil lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles. I was puzzled by the substantially different accounts of events. I was shocked at the sloppy investigative procedures followed by the LAPD Internal Affairs Division, and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. Now, I wish that I could understand the decisions and motivations of the LAPD, Internal Affairs, and the legal teams that represented the accused officers.
The videotaped beating of Rodney King
Shortly after midnight in the foothills of Los Angeles, Officer Lawrence Powell hit Rodney King. His metal baton struck King in the arms, right clavicle, shoulder and chest. King landed face first on the asphalt. Officers struck him up to a dozen times before stepping back to evaluate their use of force. Would King lie down on his stomach with his arms and legs spread out as instructed? No, not yet. In a twelve second flurry, King took fourteen blows: three in the upper torso, two in the back, two in the shoulder, one in the buttocks and six in the arm. The last blow to the arm from Officer Timothy Wind sent King face first into the asphalt. Yet King cocks his left knee and rises once again.
Officers Wind and Powell continue to hit King. In thirty-four seconds they deliver one blow to the knee, one to the hand, two to the buttocks, two to the ankle, two to the thigh, three to the leg, one to the shoulder and five to the back before Officer Brisneo sends King falling face first into the asphalt with a kick to the back between his shoulder blades. In less than a second King begins swinging his left arm toward Brisneo. Powell and Wind respond with blows to the right arm. King continues to rise to his hands and knees and turns toward Powell.
In the final twelve seconds, King is hit in the arm three times, in the buttocks once, and in the back four times. He is kicked in the rear shoulder area three times by Officer Wind. Finally, King puts his hands on his head. Powell hands his handcuffs to Brisneo. But, within ten seconds, King removes his left hand and renews the struggle with the police. The struggle ends when multiple officers use foot pressure to stop King’s resistance.
The video record of the beating of Rodney King lasted eighty-two seconds. The beating was brutal and seemingly unjustified. All over the world people of every race and position called for punishment of the officers involved. Old wounds were reopened, old prejudices rekindled. All because of what was on the tape. The videotape was only a small piece of a larger puzzle. Most don’t know that the edited version they saw only showed the end of the exchange between King and police. The unedited tape shot by George Holliday was twelve minutes long.
High Speed Chase
Officer Melanie Singer was patrolling the Foothill Freeway west of Burbank in her California Highway Patrol cruiser shortly before midnight. Her partner was her husband Officer Tim Singer. She noticed a car quickly approaching in her rearview mirror. In order to assess the speed of the car, she exited at Sunland Boulevard. She re-entered the freeway behind the speeding car. She quickly accelerated and arrived at her vehicle’s top speed of 115 mph. The vehicle was still pulling away from her. She turned on the cruiser’s lights and siren and continued the pursuit. She called for Highway Patrol assistance, but the nearest unit was 20 miles away. The Singers then radioed for assistance from the Los Angeles Police Department.
LAPD’s Foothill Division was a couple of miles away from the chase. Sergeant Stacey Koon listened to the pursuit as he prepared to begin his patrol for the night. Two LAPD police units responded to the Singer’s call and a police helicopter was dispatched to follow the action. Koon got into his squad car and paralleled the chase based on radio reports. The speeding vehicle exited the freeway at Paxton Street. The driver ran the stop sign at the freeway exit ramp. He then made a left turn at the blind curve going 35mph, ignoring the Highway Patrol unit with lights and siren blaring. Now the driver was in an area patrolled by the LAPD, and speeding toward the Foothill Division Station. Two officers from the Los Angeles Unified School District Police had observed the chase and joined in the pursuit. The driver suddenly came to a stop at the intersection of Foothill Boulevard and Osborne.
Procedurally, this became more than a routine speeding violation while still on the Foothill Freeway. King’s actions made felony stop procedures necessary. No officer would be slowly strolling up to King’s car to ask him if he knew how fast he was going. Highway Patrol officers were in charge of this arrest and proceeded with caution. The sound of the helicopter rotors and the siren from the school police car made communication difficult. Tim Singer commanded the driver of the car to get onto the ground in felony prone position. King didn’t move. Singer repeated his command to the passengers, Freddy Helms and Bryant Allen. They quickly complied and were handcuffed without incident, according to Koon. However, according to Allen, he heard King scream and he looked to see what was happening. Allen was told not to look, hit in the head and pushed to the ground. While handcuffed and on the ground, Allen claimed he was stomped on the back and kicked in the lower neck.
Racism in the LAPD
Koon claims that the race of the suspect was not known until the chase neared its conclusion. This makes accusations of racial profiling unlikely in the King case. Does that mean that racism was not a factor in the minds of any officer or that there is no racism in the LAPD? Of course not. Police forces are made up of human beings that reflect many beliefs, including racist beliefs. Incidents of racial remarks and inappropriate racial references were made public during the trials and investigations. While embarrassing, racist remarks are not confined to the LAPD or police officers.
Personally, I do not see why racism is relevant in the King beating. Would the beating have been more acceptable if four black cops had beaten King? Or, would it have been better if a white guy had been beaten instead? Since any change in the race of those involved would still make the beating outrageous and excessive, it is pointless to let the issue muddy the water.
Before the shift began on the night of March 3, Powell was given “special attention” at roll call because he had trouble using the PR24 baton properly during training sessions. He wasn’t hitting the target hard enough. Wind was noted for his efficiency with the weapon. This information could have no relation to the beating that night. Yet I find myself wondering if Powell was feeling pressured to show he could “do it right” while his sergeant looked on. Would he have been as active in the beating, or as brutal? No one questioned Powell on his motivations.
Assumptions and Decisions
King was a construction worker, six foot three and buffed out. Koon assumed King’s physique was the result of time in prison devoted to working out. Koon claims that King demonstrated behaviors like someone under the influence of PCP. When “dusted”, people seem to feel no pain, speak unintelligibly and become incredibly strong. Officers could not understand King when he spoke. He would not comply to their commands, especially the command to lie face down on the ground with arms and legs spread apart. The Emergency Room report and Sgt. Koon’s daily report, both completed the day of the beating, stated suspected PCP ingestion. However, PCP was not checked as a condition on either Use of Force reports filed with the LAPD connected with the booking of King. The reports were not completed after the Internal Affairs Division began its investigation. The Use of Force reports checked the “other” box and listed possibly under the influence of an unknown drug.
King stopped in an area that was well known to police as a dumping ground for bodies of drug deals gone bad. Koon claims that his thirteen years as a patrol cop had taught him some things about dangerous people that are difficult to explain to the rest of us. One of these things is the Folsom roll. It is a technique learned in prison yards that enables someone in the prone position to disarm an officer. Koon explained that when King rolled toward the officers beating him, that he was engaging in this maneuver. To the untrained eye King only appeared to be rolling on the ground in reaction to the beating.
The assumption of prison time, PCP usage and motivation for the location of the traffic stop put the officers on edge. Actions seen by civilian bystanders and viewers of the tape that seemed reasonable for someone who was being beaten were cause for the escalation of force in the minds of the officers. The officers were making decisions based on their experience with dangerous people and their training as police officers. They used the tools of their trade, TASERs, batons, guns and a lot of yelling. Nothing was effective on King that night, according to Koon.
The investigation of the beating by Tom Owens was professional and thorough. It was his job to check everything out before the civil trial so King’s lawyers weren’t surprised by details that could hurt their case. Owen had been an LAPD patrol officer for 12 years before beginning his investigative business. He still had contacts in the department and an intimate understanding of how things worked.
One of the most puzzling discrepancies I encountered when reading about his investigation concerned the car seen passing between the camera and the beating. Owens was able to identify the car because of a distinctive sticker on the door post. The dark grey Probe was driven by Martin Leon. He was driving home from a family birthday party in San Bernardino. His brother Hector was in the passenger seat and Martin’s wife and two children were in the back seat. The adults in the car gave Owens statements claiming King was attacked by the officers. They identified Brisneo as shouting “nigger” and “black” at King.
When meeting with the District Attorney about the civil case, Owens asked if they had interviewed the occupants of the car in the video. They said that they had taken the statement of “the guy” who had been driving the car. ”Not much there”, said Alan Yochelson. “He said King got out of his car and refused all orders to get down on the ground. When the officers finally approached, King went after a couple of them and knocked them down.” When Owens asked him about the other passengers in the car, Yochelson said there was only the driver. The DA had gotten the drivers name from the defense in the criminal case as part of discovery, and the name was never revealed to King’s attorney.
The conflicting account of King’s reaction to the beating was disturbing. Koon said King displayed extraordinary strength by throwing off four officers. Then King was TASED twice, each time absorbing 50,000 volts of electricity. His only reaction was a loud groan each time, and the repeated effort to rise to his feet. Then the beating began. When King continued to move around after being subjected to blow after blow, Koon was convinced that King was unaffected by pain. Koon assumed the lack of pain was related to PCP usage by King. Koon makes no mention of King screaming during the beating.
“I heard the driver (King) scream”, said Highway Patrol officer Melanie Singer during her testimony at the criminal trial. Officer Wind, in his statement to Internal Affairs, said that he heard King shouting incoherently from the pain of the TASER. A passenger in the grey Probe that drove within a few feet of the beating, Hector Leon, said that King was clearly in pain while being struck by the officers. When interviewed by Owens, Hector said he heard King screaming from the pain.
Let he who is without sin
After the beating, the criminal history of King was exposed in the press. Fear of it being entered as evidence kept King from testifying at the criminal trial. But not much was mentioned about the skeletons in the closet of the officers. Brisneo, like King, had a history of domestic abuse and drinking. The abuse was the reason for Brisneo’s failed marriage to his first wife Cindy.
In 1987 Officer Brisneo was put on a sixty-six day suspension without pay for beating and kicking a handcuffed arrestee. The average suspension is ten to twenty-two days. In 1989, Officer Powell used excessive force that resulted in a broken arm and a $70,000 settlement paid by the city of Los Angeles. This was only one of many complaints filed against Officer Powell. Only Brisneo’s suspension was made public during the trial. Neither was used as evidence against the officers in trial.
Koon makes a good case for his claim that he and his fellow officers were presumed guilty. They were hung out to dry by Police Chief Daryl Gates, Mayor Tom Bradley and even President George H.W. Bush. The videotape was damning evidence against them. But didn’t the officers presume the guilt of King? King’s evasion of arrest, physical build, and refusal to comply were suspicious. Anyone who has ever seen COPS could tell you that. The presumption of guilt on both sides resulted in all being treated unjustly.
Was justice served?
My journey through the statements and evidence has made some aspects of King’s beating clear. But I am bewildered by the discrepancies. If all of this evidence was before me as a juror, I would have reasonable doubt concerning the guilt of the officers. The jurors in each trial were given even less. Decisions made by lawyers on both sides of the case are puzzling. The criminal trail’s prosecutors seemed to just be along for the show. Their failure to let King tell his version of events gave a considerable advantage to the defense. Whenever King had his say in court, decisions were made in his favor. Civilian witnesses gave statements that conflicted with the testimony of the officers. But they were never called to testify in court.
Beginning March third, the media presence combined with posturing from politicians to produce intense public reaction to the case. Some would argue that their influence made it possible for justice to be done. Some would argue the opposite. After my experience preparing this article, I am unsure that justice is blind when there is a camera watching.