The four LAPD officers involved in beating Rodney King on March 3, 1991, went on trial for assault, in Simi Valley, California, in March of 1992.
The defense formulated an elaborate set of justifications for the beating. But contradictory information cast doubt on the justifications that the defense offered.
Let me try to summarize.
Justification #1 for the beating
Rodney King was a fleeing felon who posed a grave danger to the community.
California Highway Patrol officer Tim Singer–who, with his partner, initiated the pursuit of King–testified: “We only wanted him for a traffic violation.”
According to the defense, when King emerged from his car, he appeared to be under the influence of PCP, a dangerous street drug. “Dusters,” as LAPD officers colloquially called them, could do serious irrational violence.
Defendant Sergeant Stacey Koon testified:
Rodney King had ‘Hulk-like’ strength. He emitted a ‘bear-like’ yell when I shot a Taser-dart at him.
This supposed justification began to sway the jury. The forewoman, Dorothy Bailey, wrote in her memoir of the trial:
When we heard Sergeant Koon, we actually heard a complete, detailed account of what happened. It was the first time that I had seriously considered the officers’ perceptions and their possible fears.
If the officers had really thought at the time of the arrest that Mr. King was “dusted,” they should have handled the situation in a completely different manner.
The arresting officers shone bright lights in King’s face, and they amped-up the tension with their commands. Correct procedure with PCP-impaired suspects involves: no bright lights, and a calm, non-confrontational approach.
Justification #3 for the beating
The officers had to presume that King was armed, desperate, and dangerous, and that he would pose a threat to the public if he escaped. If they could not subdue King with baton blows, they would have had to shoot him.
King refused to comply with commands. He refused to get into the “felony prone” position, that is: flat on the ground, spread eagle, with your face turned away from the approaching officer. He gave the officers no choice.
Sergeant Charles Duke of the LAPD SWAT team, an “expert” on police use of force, testified:
The baton is used to break bones, to incapacitate a suspect. This sounds cruel, but it may come to the point where you must break a bone or so incapacitate a person so that he cannot rise.
Retired LAPD Captain Robert Michael testified:
The beating seemed brutal, but Mr. King was a credible threat to the officers. The use of force was proper.
Officer Jerry Mulford, LAPD Police Academy instructor, told the jury:
A stop after a pursuit is a high-risk stop. Officers should use as much force as possible to prevent escape.
Leslie Wiley, who sat at the Watch Commander’s Command Console when the beating occurred, testified:
The use of force was provoked, or it wouldn’t have taken place.
…This parade of officers testifying that the beating was not wrong–it had an effect on the jury. Forewoman Bailey reflected in her memoirs:
This testimony did tell me that it was possible for an officer to beat a suspect very badly, even breaking his bones, and not be in violation of policy.
King was not armed. His hands were visible at all times after he exited his car. He was obviously drunk; everyone present saw that.
One of the defendants, Officer Ted Briseno, testified:
I did not think that Mr. King was combative, threatening, or aggressive. [Once he was on the ground], I never saw him trying to get up.
[Two other LAPD officers then took the stand to accuse Briseno of lying.]
King had often gone fishing with his father in the adjacent park (that’s why he drove there in his drunken haze in the first place). If he had escaped into the park, what calamity would have ensued? Would a calm, reasonable police officer have feared mayhem from this drunken man?
Even if you concede that a good, self-controlled cop might possibly have felt the need to use force to subdue King, how much force would he or she have had to use? A torrent of baton blows? On a defenseless man crawling around on the ground?
The defense repeatedly insisted that King could have brought an end to the beating at any time, by assuming the felony prone position. But Commander Michael Bostic, another expert on police use of force, testified:
It was unreasonable [for the officers] to think that they could get a PCP or alcohol suspect into a felony-prone position.
Bostic went on:
From after Officer Powell knocked King down, the rest of the use of force was outside LAPD policy, unreasonable and unnecessary. I was shocked at the amount of force being used.
I would have felt fear, but not enough to justify the continued use of the baton. Handcuffing could have taken place at multiple different points.
Sergeant Duke did not testify on behalf of the LAPD, and he does not understand the Department’s use-of-force policy.
King’s surrender is not crystal-clear in the video for one reason: he never really failed to surrender in the first place. He was just flailing around drunkenly.
Prosecutor Terry White responded to the idea that the officers felt great danger from King:
If the situation was as dangerous as Sergeant Koon and Officer Powell said it was, then the other police officers at the scene would not be standing around with casual, nonchalant attitudes, arms folded. [as the video shows]
Then the prosecutor referred to a fact which is obvious to anyone who watches the video, namely that King did not assume the felony-prone position because he could not do so, because he had to struggle to defend himself from the torrent of blows.
Mr. King has the right, once unreasonable force is being used, he has the right to defend himself, he has the right to try to get away, he has the right to cover up. So if there is any movement by Mr. King, he is justified in making that move, he is justified in moving around because he can defend himself.
The video does not show a dangerous criminal surrendering to officers after they applied an appropriate amount of force, because King never posed a danger in the first place. The video shows a defenseless drunk man getting beaten in a way that could have cost him his life, while he hardly knew what was going on.
The Simi-Valley jury heard these shallow justifications for the beating, which I have tried to summarize, from defense witnesses. Then the jury heard closing arguments from the defense.
One of the attorneys argued:
Police officers don’t get paid to roll around in the dirt with the likes of Rodney Glen King. That’s not their job. That’s not their duty. And if we, as members of the community, demand that they do that, the thin blue line that separates the law-abiding from the not-law-abiding will disintegrate. We leave it to them to take care of the mean streets.
From start to finish, Rodney King controlled his own destiny. Every choice Rodney King made was the wrong one. Now whose fault was that?
This man was like something out of a monster movie.
If you can’t get him back down with the baton, what are you going to do? Either he’s going to get in his car and leave and you’re going to go back to the police station for coffee [Rodney King never once made a move to get back into his car] or you’re going to have to shoot him. That’s terrible. That makes me sick, just like it did the President of the United States.
President George H.W. Bush had said that watching the videotape had made him sick. The defense attorney continued:
Because the President doesn’t understand. He’s not looking at this through the perceptions of the officers. The video distorted the reality of what happened from the perception of the officers.
The defense successfully convinced the members of the jury to disbelieve their own eyes.
I think it would be unfair to condemn the jurors as human beings. We have to remember that the prosecution made mistakes and missed opportunities. And many respectable people have argued that somehow the officers were, in fact, not at fault, not to blame for beating Rodney King so brutally and unnecessarily.
Judging the jury is for God, not for us, anyway. Rather, let’s recognize this:
A group of well-meaning people can have their perceptions of reality distorted pretty easily. All you have to do is appeal to their own unrecognized prejudices.
The officer defendants, and the suburban jurors who acquitted them, had this in common: They imagined a dangerous enemy lurking at the gates of their stronghold. An army of black criminals.
The jurors might have summoned the capacity to think: Rodney King did wrong. He drove drunk. He led the cops on a pathetic little chase, then paid for it by suffering a totally unjustified, brutal beating. These defendants turned a low-wattage drunk-driver arrest into an occasion of violence that shook the whole country, and they should be held accountable for it.
The jurors might have been able to see that King was not a hardened hoodlum scouting territory for gangland-criminal activities. He wasn’t part of an enemy army.
They could have seen this, the jurors. It was all pretty clear. They could have grasped it, without much trouble.
But they did not want to.
The defendants, their attorneys, and the parade of other defense witnesses gave the jurors all the reason they needed to disbelieve their own eyes.
It could happen to us. We need to guard ourselves against this kind of self-deception at all times.