The term “police brutality” was rarely heard by the majority of Americans before Los Angeles Police Department officers violently beat Rodney King in 1991. Likewise, most Americans had never seen video footage of police brutality on the evening news. Many of these people were shocked at the aggression shown by the police and outraged by the excessive force used. Other Americans were outraged but not shocked because they had personally experienced this type of police treatment or seen it happen to other people in their neighborhoods. For these people, Mr. King’s encounter with the police was very familiar.
Was justice served?
After 15 minutes of being beaten by multiple police officers, Mr. King had injuries that included permanent brain damage, broken bones, broken teeth, and skull fractures. The officers eventually charged him with driving under the influence of alcohol.
It seems logical that there would be consequences for the police officers who used excessive force and for the police officers who were bystanders to the beating and did not intervene. It seems rational that any police officer who participated in permanently disabling Mr. King would be held to account. It seems reasonable that most members of the public would agree. Ultimately, four police officers were indicted and charged with excessive use of force. In 1992, the four police officers who were charged with excessive use of force faced a local trial and were acquitted by a jury. In a federal court, they were eventually convicted of violating Mr. King’s civil rights.
Los Angeles reacts to verdict
After the acquittal of Rodney King’s attackers, a disgruntled and incensed group of Los Angeles residents rioted for three days. They were angry and they wanted the police to be held accountable. The more optimistic, perhaps, also wanted long-term changes in policing to happen. For less optimistic residents, there was little belief that change could happen. The riots also became a story on the evening news. Everything about Mr. King’s case, from the beating by police officers to the acquittal of his attackers, displayed the failures of the Los Angeles Police Department and of the California court system.
Remedies for victims
Victims like Rodney King have been failed at least twice in a case like this. First, Mr. King was brutally attacked physically and left with severe injuries, by police officers who were sworn to protect and serve him. Second, Mr. King was brutally attacked psychologically—by the beating and then by the California court system that failed to convict his attackers. One can go farther back and look at the circumstances and culture that led to Mr. King running from the police officers. Police reform is one of the key tools that can change the relationship between police and community members.
Until police reform happens, Mr. King’s case is a reminder that legal representation is a key factor in a victim getting justice or, if not justice, at least some compensation for their suffering.