30th Anniversary of Rodney King Riots: Why Reform Failed

WThe shock of America came when a jury in Los Angeles announced, on April 29 1992, that four police officers from Los Angeles had been found not guilty of assault using a deadly weapon during the beating of Rodney King. Los Angeles saw a 5-day revolt after the announcement.

The federal forces deployed more than 10,000 National Guardsmen to stop what turned into the largest urban rebellion in New York City since 1965. There were more than 50 deaths, more than 2000 injuries, and $1 billion in damages to buildings.

George Holliday was a witness to the events and captured it on video. This video shows Rodney King being beat 50 times and shot with tasers by the police. The President George H.W. Bush addressed the nation on May 1. Bush addressed the nation, saying he and First Lady Barbara Bush were “stunned,” as “it was hard to understand how the verdict could possibly square with the video.” As the historian Elizabeth Hinton writes in America On Fire: A Untold Story of Police Violence “This was the first viral video of police brutality.”

Continue reading: Police misconduct caught on tape before Rodney King

One the 30th anniversary of the acquittal and the rebellion, video footage of police brutality is still driving the national conversation—from Darnella Frazier’s video of a white police officer murdering George Floyd by kneeling on his neck in May 2020, to the more recent video of a white police officer shooting Patrick Lyoya in the back of his head in April 2022. Experts on policing tell TIME that while changes were made to improve oversight of the LAPD following the acquittal, the biggest legacy of the uprisings was in the way the video helped open white Americans’ eyes to police brutality and to the challenges that African Americans can face with police. However, this awareness is not always translated into action.

“In 1992, I think people that had not directly experienced police violence saw something that shocked them; I think communities that were used to police violence were like, ‘thank God someone finally understands what’s happening,’” says Aaron Rousell, sociologist and author of Los Angeles, Black and Brown: Police Accountability and Civilian Power at the Limits of Community Policing. “But I don’t know that the promise of that has been borne out.”

After the Los Angeles Rebellion, efforts were made to reform leadership at the LAPD. Los Angeles voters approved in June 1992 a ballot measure that restricted their police chief’s tenure to only two five year terms. This was in contrast to the life tenure they were granted before. Then-police chief Daryl Gates was ousted and Philadelphia Police Chief Willie Williams came to run the Los Angeles Police Department, becoming the city’s first Black police chief.

“One of the complaints was that the LAPD and the Chief of Police had garnered so much power in the city and the ability to be insulated from oversight, because there’s no real way to oversee the chief because they can’t be fired,” says Max Felker-Kantor, historian and author of Policing Los Angeles.

The ballot measure also added civilians to the “board of rights” panels that could hold disciplinary hearings when complaints were made against an officer. It was previously only officers who were allowed to sit on such panels. They could then hold disciplinary hearings if a complaint is made against an officer.

It would still take another scandal before the Los Angeles Police Department underwent its biggest reform. In the late 1990s, an investigation exposed corruption in the department’s anti-gang unit, from excessive use of force to stealing drugs from an evidence room, so in 2000, the Los Angeles Police Department agreed to enter into a consent decree with the department of justice, allowing for a federal judge to oversee its activities in what the Harvard Kennedy School called “one of the most ambitious experiments in police reform ever attempted in an American city.” Changes included quarterly discipline reports and a database tracking each officers’ use of force and civilian complaints to serve as an early warning system for risky behavior.

Continue reading: Los Angeles had a chance to build a better city after the Rodney King Violence of 1992. Here’s Why It Failed

Los Angeles activist say the increased focus on policing has not resulted in an increase in the resources available for South Central Los Angeles to rebuild their neighborhoods after the rebellion. These funds range from funding school supplies to healthcare. In fact, an organization called Rebuild LA, which formed shortly after the uprising in May 1992, invested less than $400 million in a revitalization project that experts estimated would cost $4-6 billion to do properly, according to Hinton’s America on Fire.

“Reforms didn’t go far enough,” says Melina Abdullah, co-founder of the L.A. chapter of Black Lives Matter. “[In 1992,]There are pushes to invest in resource, including jobs in South Central Los Angeles. Unfortunately, this led to an expansion of police. [force] that now gets more money, under the guise of training, than we do real investment in the community.”

“The changes that resulted, while important, did not actually question or address the role of the police in the city,” says Kantor. “There’s some changes in oversight, but not entirely; it didn’t really ask those fundamental questions about what the police do [and] why. Those are the questions that came up post George Floyd.”

The difficulty of answering those questions was something TIME foresaw three decades ago, when the magazine featured King’s famous plea—”Can we all get along?”—on the cover of the May 11, 1992, issue. “As appalling as the carnage was, it seemed to signal something worse: a final loss of faith by black Americans in the fairness of the criminal-justice system and hence in the rule of law itself,” the magazine reported. “It will be easier to clean up the rubble than to heal the mistrust and anger that caused it.”

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