How the Rodney King beating ‘banished’ the baton from the LAPD
When the video of Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney G. King shocked the world 25 years ago, the baton quickly became a symbol of law enforcement abuse.
The grainy black and white images showed a group of LAPD officers delivering 56 crunching blows to the African American motorist.
Back then, the 2-foot solid piece of aluminum was an essential tool in the police officer’s arsenal. In 1990, Los Angeles police officers used their batons 741 times during force incidents, more than any other weapon.
But the infamous video marked the beginning of the end for the baton’s reign. By 2015, LAPD officers used their batons just 54 times.
The baton offers a dramatic example of how police behavior has changed since the King beating. Authorities said that officers stopped using them for a variety of reasons: Changes in rules and training and the rise of other types of less-lethal weapons, as well as the lasting stigma from those grainy images.
“Back then, it was pulling out a baton and whacking people,” LAPD Deputy Chief Bill Murphy said. “After that video played that night, no one hardly ever used the baton. It was banished. It became a symbol.”
The King beating, on March 3, 1991, was a seminal event in the Los Angeles Police Department history. It began a wave of reforms — some of which are still works in progress. Over the last few years, the LAPD began installing video cameras in patrol cars, a key recommendation that the Christopher Commission made in 1991 as part of its assessment of the department. The city also hopes to equip all patrol officers with body cameras in the near future.
Still, even some department critics say the LAPD is a different institution today than it was when officers battered King during a traffic stop. There are now nearly 10,000 officers, compared with 8,450 then. What was once a mostly white force is now mostly nonwhite, including in the supervisory ranks.
Veteran LAPD officers and others say the entire culture of policing Los Angeles was different in 1991. Dealing with significantly higher crime than today, police were much more quick to use force.
The LAPD was dogged by criticism that its officers mistreated minority groups, and the King tape was widely viewed as evidence of this abuse.
“How we dealt with crime, particularly violent crime, was a lot more suppression-oriented,” said Deputy Chief Bill Scott, an African American who came on the LAPD in 1989.
The baton became a constant — and unnerving — presence in police interactions with the public, in part because training at the time told officers to avoid getting into close contact with suspects. By then, police were barred from using neck chokeholds on suspects after a string of deaths of people placed in the hold.
“Officers were trained, ‘Do not get tied up with a suspect. Don’t fight on the ground,’” Murphy said.
Original video of incident between Rodney King and four LAPD officers.
At the time of the King beating, there were few alternatives. Some police were armed with Mace, but Murphy and others said the spray was hard to aim and sometimes hurt officers. Taser electric stun devices were still in their infancy, and few officers had them, retired Capt. Greg Meyer said.
No tool has changed policing in tough situations more than the Taser and other less-lethal weapons such as beanbag rounds, said Charles “Sid” Heal, a former L.A. County sheriff’s commander and use of force expert.
LAPD officers are now required to carry Tasers. The mere threat of a Taser, which packs a 50,000-volt punch, can sometimes prompt aggressive suspects to cooperate, Murphy said.
In 2015, officers used Tasers 519 times.
The LAPD has also changed training to give officers more techniques to end altercations with suspects more quickly and less violently. A study by the LAPD a few years after the King beating showed about 62% of altercations between suspects and police officers ended with a struggle on the ground.
Murphy said department trainers developed techniques with martial arts experts on overcoming suspects quickly when they are on the ground.
“I am very confident we know how to take him down now,” Murphy said of King. “It is a matter of leverage and technique.”
While old-style batons are still in LAPD cars, most officers today carry a lighter, retractable version. Batons were used in only 3% of all non-life-threatening force incidents last year, according to LAPD records.
The King beating generated so much criticism in part because it lasted more than a minute and involved three officers as well as a sergeant who was supervising the group.
Baton strike after baton strike rained down on King. Officers Lawrence M. Powell and Timothy E. Wind hit King repeatedly while Theodore J. Briseno kicked him. Their supervisor, Sgt. Stacey C. Koon, directed them as they delivered “power strokes” that would leave King with numerous broken bones.
Both Powell and Wind had taken part in a baton training session at the Foothill station parking lot earlier that evening.
The officers were charged, but a jury in Simi Valley found them not guilty. The verdict sparked the L.A. riots in 1992. Two of the officers were later convicted in federal court of violating King’s civil rights and sentenced to prison.
Since then, the LAPD has established tighter rules on when officers can use force. When in 2004 another video showed an officer beating a suspect with a metal flashlight, the LAPD drew up new rules and stopped using heavy metal flashlights, replacing them with plastic devices that cannot be used as a weapon.
For all the change, the LAPD still faces criticism over the way it deals with African Americans. The 2014 shooting of a mentally ill black man by two officers in South L.A. sparked furious protests of the department. The Police Commission found that one of the officers violated the department’s policy on using deadly force in the shooting.
Even longtime LAPD critics acknowledge the department’s relations with minority communities has improved. But they say there is much more left to do.
Blacks represent a tenth of the population, but a third of those subjected to nonlife-threatening force.
Last year, the LAPD began a new push to teach officers how to de-escalate tensions without resorting to violence.
Between the new training and less-lethal weapons, Murphy and others hope an incident like the Rodney King case would end up differently today.
The goal, Murphy said, is simple: “We’d talk to him longer, not beat him.”
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