20 Years After Rodney King, Who’s Holding Cops Accountable?

Video has provided a powerful tool for communities catching cops who abuse their power, deep reforms are still desperately needed.

By Julianne Hing Mar 03, 2011

Twenty years ago today Rodney King was dragged out of his Hyundai sedan just after midnight and beaten by Los Angeles police after an eight-mile chase through San Fernando Valley that ended in Lake View Terrace. Officers surrounded the 25-year-old taxi driver and construction worker and kicked, tased and beat him with their batons held like baseball bats. The attack was illuminated by the a spotlight provided by a LAPD helicopter hovering overhead, and the headlights of police cars that surrounded King’s car.

King ended the night with nine skull fractures, a broken leg and shattered eye socket, a concussion, and permanent nerve damage that left part of his face paralyzed. Four of the officers who beat him that night were acquitted on all criminal charges. Two were later convicted of federal civil rights violations.

The beating was caught on camera by George Holliday, who turned on his new Sony camcorder after he was woken up by the blaring sirens outside his door. Just seconds of his 12-minute video were aired on the local news that night, but they were enough to galvanize the country and forever alter the culture of policing in Los Angeles.

In the years since King’s beating was caught on film and broadcast around the world, the footage paved the way for dramatic overhauls of the Los Angeles Police Department. In 2001 the Los Angeles Police Department entered into a court-mandated five-year federal consent decree after a pileup of scandals and controversies, including King’s beating, the fallout from the deadly uprising that followed the four police officers’ acquittal, and the Rampart scandal. 

During the eight-year long oversight process, a judge and independent auditor monitored the department’s progress in adopting and implementing reforms. The decree ended in 2009, and the department’s improvements did not go unappreciated; independent watchers noted that the department had made some gains in improving its policing. But the city’s Latino and black residents still reported lower levels of trust of police officers. Researchers found in 2009 that ten percent of black Los Angeles residents report that "almost none" of the LAPD officers they encounter treat them or their family and friends respectfully.

Cop Watch 2.0

What has changed in the last twenty years is people’s access to cameras in order to film everyday interactions with police. The medium has become a crucial tool for demanding accountability for violent acts of unwarranted brutality. Rates of police brutality may not be going up, but there’s certainly much more undeniable proof of it today. In just the last year, Seattle police officer Shandy Cobane was caught on video kicking 21-year-old Martin Monetti and shouting, "I’ll beat the fucking Mexican piss out of you, homey! You feel me?" Another Seattle cop, Ian Walsh, was filmed punching a black teen in the face during a scuffle after she jaywalked across the street. Last month Houston police were caught on video beating a 15-year-old black boy with kicks and punches, even after he was handcuffed on the ground. Last summer bystanders whipped out their cell phones in time to film a Border Patrol officer crossing into Mexican territory from Texas and shooting a 15-year-old boy named Sergio Adrian Hernandez Huereca, who died at the scene.

But even this irrefutable evidence is no guarantee that police officers will be charged, let alone sanctioned, for their brutality. Seattle’s city prosecutor Dan Satterberg cleared Cobane of both criminal and hate crime charges. Houston police chief Charles McClelland defended his department against community criticism about the attack. He argued that he had the offending officers disciplined immediately, but the video only surfaced last month.

When ex-BART cop Johannes Mehserle stood trial last summer for killing an unarmed black man named Oscar Grant, cell phone videos and BART surveillance footage that showed Grant being shot in the back while he lay face down on the train platform were key evidence that both the prosecution and defense tried to use to their advantage. Videos were slowed down frame by frame, jurors peered at pixelated hands and elbows and grimaces. Attorneys used the blurred figures and barely perceptible movements to weave opposing narratives of a night whose exact events are still in dispute.

Mehserle was eventually convicted of involuntary manslaughter and received a two-year prison sentence, but because of the damning videos, the public didn’t need to wait for the verdict. Before his case ever went to trial they already knew he was guilty, and folks took to Oakland streets for several nights of rallies and protests to say so.

Police officers have the benefit of qualified immunity, which allows them to escape individual responsibility if another competent police officer would have reacted similarly. And while policy varies from department to department, the broad understanding is that police officers are allowed to use force against civilians if they believe the suspect is a risk to themselves, or if the officer fears for her or his own life.

Communities React

These legal hurdles have forced community groups to initiate their own initiatives to put sustained public pressure on police departments. In the wake of Sean Bell’s 2006 killing in New York City, a coalition of community groups formed People’s Justice for Community Control and Police Accountability. Their Cop Watch programs sends out teams of folks to observe police officers while they’re in the process of detaining or arresting someone. Each team consists of people in the front who narrate details into an audio recorder that are hard to catch on film like badge numbers, while a back team further away records the incident. They serve the double purpose of providing an independent public record of the incident so it’s not always a police officer’s word against the civilian’s, and also as an in-the-moment deterrent for everyone involved.

"I have definitely had the experience where it has been preventative," said Yul-san Liem, a representative from People’s Justice. "The act of observing has de-escalated situations, whereas the cop starts out very angry and threatening and by the end of it, they’re shaking the hand of the person they were trying to arrest."

Twenty years after Rodney King was beaten, video is crucial for providing the galvanizing spark and just as important, preventative precaution for keeping police officers in check. But it turns out that there’s no short cut around the hard work of reforming police departments and holding abusive police officers accountable.