From the Archives: Impact of Rodney King beating deals a blow to officers’ image


Dennis Azevedo, a veteran officer with the Los Angeles Police Department’s Harbor Division, was carrying out routine duty--serving subpoenas at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. But as he strode through a crowded waiting room, the uniformed officer could sense, as he would later recall, “a lot of animosity.”

The reason for the hostility was obvious: Overhead, a television screen was filled with ugly images of Los Angeles Police Department officers aggressively beating a man. As he left the hospital, Azevedo came face to face with one angry youth.

“You look,” the patient said accusingly, “like one of the guys on the tape.”


Try as he might to shrug off the encounter--”Just some guy blowing smoke,” the 43-year-old officer told himself--the incident Wednesday night pained Azevedo. Like many other Police Department officers, he said he felt ashamed about an incident that did not involve him at all, that he had first witnessed on his own television.

Azevedo’s reaction to the beating Sunday of Rodney G. King, a 25-year-old Altadena man who had been stopped for speeding, was echoed in interviews over the past two days with more than two dozen of his colleagues in the 8,300-member force. Many officers said they were embarrassed and humiliated by the nationally publicized incident. Others expressed outright anger.

“This isn’t just a case of excessive force,” said Officer Tom Sullivan, a 20-year veteran assigned to the Police Department’s downtown headquarters. “It’s a case of mass stupidity.”

Though the city’s officers continued their regular duties, making arrests, writing tickets, responding to 911 emergencies, there was a glumness among them visible in their eyes.

One motorcycle officer, who declined to be named, said a partner was “flipped off four times” while on duty in the Wilshire District. “What was presented on the videotape was embarrassing,” the six-year veteran said. “It kind of makes the job harder out there. It undermines the trust we’ve built up.”

Another officer recalled arriving home from work and being confronted by his 8-year-old son, who had just watched the videotape on the news.

“Hey, Pop, did you ever do anything like that?” the officer’s son asked.

He was devastated by the question, the police veteran said.

“I really feel like I got raped,” he said, asking not to be named. “The department got raped and the community we’re sworn to protect got raped. You might try to justify what (the officers) did and, in the beginning, I tried to do that.

“I thought, ‘Well, this (King) is a bad guy. He was a parolee on a robbery conviction.’ But the bottom line is, these (officers) stepped over the line. And that’s the frustrating part about it.”

Despite Chief Daryl F. Gates’ public condemnation of the attack Thursday, the issue remains a sensitive one within the department. Many officers commented on the incident only on the condition that their names not be used. Others declined to comment.

And a few accused the media of whipping up unnecessary controversy--in effect, trying and convicting the 15 officers involved in the incident before criminal and administrative charges could be investigated.

At many police stations, anger was very evident. At San Pedro’s Harbor Division, for example, as far from Lake View Terrace as any Police Department station in Los Angeles, officers appeared as upset about the beating as if it had happened down the street.

“Even if the guy was Attila the Hun and Hitler and Stalin rolled into one, it would be very difficult to justify that sort of treatment,” said Sgt. Tony Rosa, an 18-year Police Department veteran.

“The overwhelming attitude around here,” added Lt. Betty Kelepecz “is that (the officers involved in the incident) went way beyond all realms of moral conduct.”

Describing the atmosphere at Harbor Division since the incident, Capt. Joe De Ladurantey said: “It’s like a tomb . . . very quiet. Very sullen. It’s like someone died.”

Some officers said they could understand how the incident might have gotten out of hand. Sullivan, who has spent 17 years in the streets, mostly downtown, said a high-speed car chase sometimes impairs the judgment of certain officers. According to reports, the beating of King followed a high-speed chase by California Highway Patrol officers who were later joined by Police Department units.

At the end of such chases, Sullivan said, officers try to be prepared for anything, including the possibility of violence.

Your mind is working very, very fast, much faster than you can speak. You’re very, very aggressive. You have a situation with a high degree of stress.

— Tom Sullivan, a 20-year veteran officer

“You don’t know if someone is going to step out shooting, or what,” he said. “Your mind is working very, very fast, much faster than you can speak. You’re very, very aggressive. You have a situation with a high degree of stress.”

Sullivan, however, lamented that officers lost control of the arrest, apparently continuing to beat and kick King even after he was prone. The case, he said, has created a false impression that such events occur with regularity. Not only that, but fears of public backlash may make it more difficult for other officers--including many good, skilled police officers with much experience--to carry out their assignments, especially in dangerous situations, Sullivan said.

Officers may fear using adequate force to accomplish the job, he said.

When asked about the specter of racism, a number of officers brushed off the possibility even though King is black and the officers involved were white, and they added that it did not appear to that they were being publicly viewed as racists because of the incident.

“This is not the attitude I’ve seen around,” commented one black officer from South Central’s 77th Street station, speculating that the violence was more the result of the emotions of the car chase.

“For what they did, they deserve to be punished,” he said of the officers. “They went overboard.”

The officer, who asked not to be named, added, “We’re human beings and we make mistakes. But we’re not on the job to beat people up. . . . We have to control our temper because we have the guns and the badges.”

The case seemed to dominate conversation among officers. They sorted through conflicting facts and emotions, wondering whether King, in fact, posed a real danger to the men arresting him, whether he might have been intoxicated with the drug PCP or alcohol--as early reports had it. The district attorney on Friday said King would not be prosecuted for any offense.

Some officers said they wanted to hear more of the details, concerned that the homemade videotape of the incident did not capture the crucial early moments, leaving only bystanders to sketch in the details.

“The tape is shocking,” said John Skaggs, a West Bureau motorcycle officer who was standing next to his Harley-Davidson motorcycle as he spoke, “but I don’t know what was cut out of the tape.”

Others, however, had seen and heard enough.

At an Echo Park doughnut shop near the Police Department’s Rampart station, several officers on break early Friday were unanimous in their condemnation of the officers involved in the incident, saying that their behavior was “out of line” and “total B.S.”

But when a reporter approached, the officers turned on him with their anger.

“You guys are to blame,” one uniformed patrolman groused. “It’s all over TV and on the front page. It’s your fault.”

Another officer, Lt. Frank Malan of the Devonshire station, expressed a similar view: “The press has beat this to death. I hope they find something else to write about.”

Everywhere, it seemed, police were finding themselves on the defensive. One plainclothes police detective, who asked for anonymity, reported being treated as a “virtual leper” at a law enforcement gathering near Orange County’s John Wayne Airport.

“When we walked in, the other police officers--and they’re from all over the country--said, ‘Well, here comes LAPD--somebody grab the video camera,’ ” the detective said, recalling how the officers feigned fear at his approach.

“I mean, that hurt,” the detective said. “That really hurt.”

At Foothill Division, where the attack occurred, one sergeant made an effort to defend his tarnished colleagues.

“Everyone that comes in contact with these officers (is) not beaten,” said the sergeant, declining to be named. He went on to say that many officers in the division believe King charged one of the officers and that an electrified stun-gun did not halt him. He further blamed the incident, in part, on the city’s decision a few years ago to ban the chokehold, which was often effective in subduing an unruly suspect.

“If the (chokehold) was approved, that would not have happened,” the sergeant said.

Many officers said the beating should not have happened.

“What happened before (the tape began recording) doesn’t justify what went on after,” said Capt. Jim Whitley, patrol commander at Devonshire station. “Officers are upset and disappointed. It was not standard operating procedure and everybody knows that.”

Lt. Don Irvine of the Harbor Division cast the incident as a tragedy. “But the real tragedy,” he added, “would be if every officer out there didn’t learn from this.”

Times staff writers Sam Enriquez, John Johnson, Josh Meyer and George Ramos contributed to this story.