The Rodney King Beating, 25 Years Later

Twenty-five years ago today, the videotaped police beating of Rodney King brought police brutality and racial inequality to the forefront of public discourse, social issues that still reverberate today.
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Rodney King Photo

Rodney King pleads with rioters to make peace on May 1, 1992 in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Douglas Burrows/Liaison/Getty Images)

Twenty-five years ago today, in the early morning hours of March 3, 1991, what should have been a routine police stop for excessive speeding became a watershed event in America’s history of race relations. After a noncompliant, intoxicated African American emerged from his automobile, seemingly oblivious to the trouble he was in, a dozen white officers encircled him. In a nearby apartment complex, a resident videotaped the arrest including 90 seconds of police relentlessly beating Rodney King. The acquittal of the offending officers resulted in an eruption of angry residents in South Central Los Angeles and brought police brutality and racial inequality to the forefront of the American public. Issues that still reverberate today. 

Rodney Glen King grew up in Altadena, a community north of Pasadena, California. His father struggled with inadequate work and alcohol addiction which turned stern child rearing into abuse. His mother, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, was also strict, but more judicious in disciplining Rodney and his four siblings. Though living in a multiracial community, young Rodney was not immune to bigotry, as he recalled in his 2012 memoir, The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption, when some white boys called him “nigger” and threw rocks to chase him out of a local swimming hole. 

In his early twenties, Rodney King had a few run-ins with the law. In 1987, he pleaded “no contest” to domestic abuse of his wife and was placed on probation. In 1989, he was convicted of robbing a Korean convenience store and sentenced to two years in prison, but was paroled a year later.

On the evening of March 2, 1991, Rodney King was driving with two friends, Bryant Allen and Freddie Helms, heading west at high speed on the Foothill Freeway (I-210) after a night of partying. At about 12:30 A.M. on March 3, King sped past California Highway Patrol Officers Tim and Melanie Singer (husband-and-wife) then slowed down, perhaps noticing the police vehicle. As the officers swept up behind King’s vehicle to pace him, he then raced off again and the officers lit up their lights and siren in pursuit at speeds in excess of 100 mph.  

King drove his vehicle off the freeway and into a residential area at speeds of 50 to 80 mph. He ran though several red lights ignoring numerous commands to pull over. He later testified he was afraid getting caught would violate his parole for the 1989 robbery and send him back to prison. By this time, Los Angeles Police officers had joined in the chase with squad cars and helicopters. King finally stopped in the 11700 block of Foothill Boulevard after nearly hitting several other vehicles. 

CHP Officer Timothy Singer ordered all passengers out of the car. Allen and Helms complied, though later reported they were manhandled and struck by officers. King remained in his vehicle. At about this time, LAPD officers arrived at the scene, among them Sargent Stacey Koon, and Officers Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno. Timothy Singer again ordered King out of the car and he finally complied. Officer Melanie Singer moved cautiously towards King with her service weapon drawn and again ordered him to lie on the ground. 

Sargent Koon took tactical command of the situation and ordered all weapons holstered so that King would not take a gun away from one of the officers. The Singers complied. From this point on, the different officers’ recollections of subsequent events began to vary. One stated King was acting erratically and believed he was under the influence of PCP. Another officer testified that King complied with the order to lay down, then later charged an officer. One officer testified that King was attacked by other officers with Tasers and baton because he wouldn’t lie down. Nearly all testified they feared for their lives and couldn’t believe the 6 foot 2 inch, 250 pound King could be so strong as to keep coming at them. 

Awakened by the noise and lights, George Holliday, a resident in a nearby apartment building, took out his video camera and began filming from his balcony, about ninety feet away. Though out of focus and shaky for the first 10 seconds, the videotape revealed a prone Rodney King surrounded by a dozen officers as three to four Taser and beat him with power strokes from their batons. Several times a writhing King tried to crawl away, but the beating continued for over 90 seconds, as officers delivered over 50 blows to King’s arms, legs, back and several kicks to the head and shoulders. The only sound heard is the whirling of the helicopters overhead and indistinguishable yells and cries. Finally, King stopped moving and the officers placed him under arrest, binding his legs and wrists, then dragging him on his abdomen to the side of the road.

Rodney King was taken by ambulance to Pacifica Hospital Emergency Room and diagnosed with a fractured facial bone, broken ankle and multiple bruises. His toxicology report showed he was probably intoxicated at the time of his arrest with alcohol and traces of marijuana.

On March 4, 1991, George Holliday turned his videotape over to Los Angeles television station KTLA, which broadcast the tape on their evening news but edited out the first 10 seconds of blurred and shaky images. The next day, CNN obtained a copy and played it on their nationwide news program. The tape was subsequently picked up by all the major networks and within hours, the FBI announced they would open an investigation. Long before smart phones and surveillance cameras, Holliday’s videotape would bring alleged police brutality into the nation’s consciousness and set off a wave of resentment against law enforcement, characterizing an imperfect and unwilling Rodney King as the universal victim of racial inequality in America. 

All charges against King were dropped within days of his arrest and by March 14, a grand jury had returned indictments against Sargent Koon and Officers Powell, Wind, and Brisenio. In April, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley called for an independent investigation (later known as the Christopher Commission, for its leader, future Secretary of State Warren Christopher) which would conclude that a significant number of LAPD officers persistently ignored department guidelines on the use of excessive force, that the department failed to control these officers, and that such problems weren’t unique to the LAPD. 

In March, 1992, the trial of the four police officers began after a change of venue ruling moved it to all-white Simi Valley. On April 29, 1992, at 3:15 P.M., the jury of 10 whites one Hispanic and one Filipino-American issued a verdict of “not guilty” for three of the officers and were deadlocked on a verdict for the fourth. The restored 10 seconds of the Holiday videotape was seen by the jury and was a major factor in their decision. By 5:00 P.M., Los Angeles exploded in the worst race riots since Watts in 1965. During the street fighting, King made a television appearance in which he said "Can we all get along?” By the time police, the National Guard, and U.S. Army and Marines restored order, 53 people were dead, over 7,000 people arrested, and nearly $1 billion in property damage was sustained.

In the aftermath, a federal grand jury indicted the four officers in August, 1992, and the jury convicted Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell of violating Rodney King’s civil rights. Both were sentenced to 30 months in a federal prison. 

In April, 1994, the U.S. District Court awarded King $3.8 million in damages in a civil suit against the city of Los Angles. But King didn’t end up a millionaire. He bought two modest houses, one for his mother and one for himself. Nearly half of the settlement was absorbed in legal fees and the rest lost on an ill-fated investment in a hip-hop recording company.

In the years that followed, Rodney King battled with drug and alcohol addiction. He was arrested several times between 1993 and 2011 for domestic abuse, driving under the influence, speeding, reckless driving, and was in and out of rehab several times.

On June 17, 2012, Rodney King was found lying at the bottom of his swimming pool by his fiancée, Cynthia Kelly. Responding officers pulled his lifeless body from the water and attempted to revive him. He was transferred by ambulance to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton, California, and pronounced dead. Subsequent police investigation found no evidence of foul play. In August, 2012, King’s autopsy results were released stating he died of accidental drowning and that alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, and PCP were found in his system.