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An Arrest Seen Around the World

Rodney Glen King spends the evening of March 2, 1991, watching a basketball game and drinking 40-ounce bottles of Olde English 800 at a friend’s home in Los Angeles.  After the game, King and two friends – “Pooh” Allen and Freddie Helms – take the 210 freeway heading west at high speeds through the San Fernando Valley near Tujunga. King is a 25-year-old Sacramento native and parolee convicted of robbing a convenience store and assaulting the clerk.

At 12:30 a.m. March 3, husband-and-wife California Highway Patrol Officers Tim and Melanie Singer spot King’s white Hyundai behind them, coming up fast.  The Singers give chase, lights flashing.

For eight miles, King tries to outrun the patrol car at speeds reaching 115 miles per hour on the freeway and 85 miles per hour on surface streets. A police helicopter flies overhead. King zips onto an exit ramp, runs a red light, and nearly causes an accident before stopping at the intersection of Osborne Street and Foothill Boulevard in Lake View Terrace, near the entrance to Hansen Dam Park. As three Los Angeles Police Department cars arrive on the scene, the Singers order everyone out of the Hyundai and command them to lie face down on the ground.  Allen and Helms do so. King refuses. Melanie Singer shouts at King to exit the vehicle. Eventually, he does.

With gun drawn, Melanie Singer moves in to make the arrest. Los Angeles Police Department Sergeant Stacey Koon tells Singer he and his four officers will handle the arrest. Approaching a suspect with weapon drawn is a prohibited practice in the LAPD because of fears the gun can be knocked from the officer’s hand.  

In later testimony, Koon says he believes King is behaving erratically because he’s on PCP. Officers Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Ted Briseno, and Roland Solano try to force King down but King resists, rising to his feet even after being zapped with two 50,000-volt Taser charges.

Ninety feet away, George Holliday, a plumbing company manager, is awakened by the lights and noise. He owns a new Sony camcorder, takes it to his bedroom terrace, points it at the action and begins filming as King rises to his feet and charges one of the officers. In steadying the camera, Holliday blurs the initial seconds of the video.

Before King’s eventual arrest, less than two minutes later, Holliday’s camera records Officers Powell and Wind kicking King several times and inflicting some 55 baton blows, several of which appear to land on his head, a violation of Los Angeles Police Department policy. Officer Briseno is shown stomping on King’s shoulder, causing his head to whack against the asphalt. Powell kicks King six times in the neck. When the beating concludes, King has crushed bones, shattered teeth, kidney damage and a fractured skull. Later, King doesn’t remember much of what happened to him after the first blow. He tells the grand jury:

“I felt beat up and like a crushed can.  That’s what I felt like, like a crushed can all over, and my spirits were down real low.”  

Holliday calls a police station to tell them about his tape and gets the brush-off. He takes his tape to KTLA, a local TV station, which airs the footage  — after showing it to the Los Angeles Police Department to ensure it’s not a hoax.  What’s eventually put on the air isn’t Holliday’s complete tape. The first 13 blurry seconds of the 81-second tape are cut, leaving a 68-second video as the only visual record of an arrest that takes more than nine minutes. KTLA, in turn, provides Holliday’s tape to CNN, which along with other networks, airs the footage enough times that an executive at the network describes it as “wallpaper.”

Twelve days later, Sgt. Koon and officers Powell, Wind and Briseno are indicted. All four are charged with assault with a deadly weapon and excessive use of force by a police officer. Though not an active participant in the beating, Koon, as the commanding officer, is charged with aiding and abetting. On April 29, 1992, a Simi Valley jury acquits Koon, Wind and Briseno but can’t agree on one of the charges against Powell. The verdict is blamed for the Los Angeles riots that leave 53 dead, 2,383 injured, cause more than 7,000 fires, damage 3,100 businesses, and generate nearly $1 billion in financial losses.

Over the next 27 years, the Los Angeles Police Department changes significantly. At the time of the riots, more than 60 percent of the department is white. Today, 31 percent of its 10,000 officers are white and nearly 49 percent Latino or Hispanic. Ten percent are African American. Some 7,000 officers wear body cameras. Since 2018, all relevant video of officer-involved shootings is released to the public within 45 days of a shooting.

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. Courtesy: Los Angeles Public Library [Order# 00074311]
Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. Courtesy: Los Angeles Public Library [Order# 00074311]

After the riots, Mayor Tom Bradley orders an investigation. The 228-page “Christopher Commission” Report finds a pervasive pattern of excessive force by officers.

Imposition of a federal Department of Justice consent decree in 2001 stemming from an investigation of corruption in the police department’s Rampart Division led to the implementation of many of the Christopher Commission’s recommendations, including changes in search and arrest procedures and greater community and preventative policing strategies.

King is found dead in his Rialto swimming pool in 2012, two months after the publication of his memoirs. Cause of death: accidental drowning.

TOP IMAGE: The first page of the Los Angeles Police Department report on the preliminary investigation of the Rodney King arrest. Source [FBI – https://vault.fbi.gov/rodney-king/rodney-king-part-24-of-24/view]