Rodney King: A cop's perspective

“Rodney King, the man who was at the center of the Los Angeles police brutality case that later sparked the Los Angeles riots, has died.”

Following the above announcement by ABC World News earlier this month, I began to imagine how a high school history teacher may try to integrate that news into their lesson plans. Perhaps the question might be posed, “Can anyone tell me how the Rodney King Beating impacted law enforcement in America?”

Here’s a cop’s perspective.

The Incident
On March 3rd, 1991 Rodney King was driving while intoxicated and when officers attempted to arrest him, the large belligerent man resisted that arrest.

A citizen, George Holliday, picked up his video camera and taped the in-progress drama playing out in front of him. Ultimately, LAPD officers found themselves criminally charged. There was one mistrial and four were acquitted in Simi Valley court room.

The officers were tried a second time in Federal Court and two were convicted of violating King’s Constitutional Rights. They were sent to Federal Prison. Two other officers were acquitted a second time.

What did law enforcement take away from this highly-publicized incident?

When this case was reported, the media chose to edit out the first three seconds of the tape that showed Rodney King rising up from the street to charge one officer in a clear-cut violent assault. In self defense, that officer struck King with his PR-24.

The jury saw that portion of the tape for the first time in court after it had been deliberately withheld from the public by the media. This short clip gave credibility to the officers, who testified that a major part of the battle with Rodney King occurred before Holliday turned on his camera.

The defense expertly showed the tape frame by frame to the jury, leading to an acquittal in the first trial. View the full Holliday tape here.

The Aftermath
In the wake of the Rodney King case, cameras gradually became standard equipment in patrol cars all over the nation. As far as citizens recording police, there is still much disagreement about how it should be handled.

When it comes up in my training, I tell officers:

1.) Have your camera going also.
2.) Neither fear nor fight civilian taping. Accept that you will be recorded.
3.) Learn to use recordings to your advantage. Go through the legal process to obtain the complete footage as evidence — they will support you more than they will harm you.
4.) A professional police officer has nothing to fear from being recorded (under-cover officers not included here).
5.) Always act as if you are being recorded, because in today’s world you probably are.


Since the King arrest, officers of the Los Angeles Police Department have made hundreds of arrests every day. Between one and three percent of those people resist arrest, causing Los Angeles Police Officers to have to use some level of force to overcome that resistance. And yet there have been no more Rodney King-type tapes.

There is a reason for this.

After the Rodney King incident, the Los Angeles Police Department did an extensive review of their use-of-force training and asked, “How can we do better?” 

They studied not just how often people resisted, but exactly how they resisted. They analyzed the most common first moves of resistive suspects and sought to prepare officers to effectively counter those moves.

They sought input of experts from inside as well as outside the department to obtain a variety of options that might be taught to officers on how to best control different types of resistance they could face.

After extensive study, they put together an effective and defensible system of Defensive Tactics and Control for their officers.

The Training
There is a country song that says, “I fought the law and the law won.” It is safe to say two officers landing in Federal Prison, while the suspect walks away a millionaire, does not constitute a win for the officers involved.

A powerful lesson learned by police trainers nationally from the Rodney King incident was that officers not only need to be trained to physically survive each call, but they have to survive every call legally and emotionally also.

The officers in the Rodney King case all survived physically, but they did not all survive legally and no one can calculate the emotional damage caused to each officer at that scene.

Police training is still evolving, but we continue to find better ways to train officers to survive their careers on all these levels.

The media learned nothing. It still edits tapes, satisfied to sacrifice accuracy and even the truth to fit a narrative.

A Cop’s Perspective: I’d Rather Be a Cop than Rodney King
Cops never make millions of dollars like Mr. King, but we always have a few bucks in our pocket and know a place where we can spend it on the best chili dog in town. We meet interesting people, do exciting things every day and the world would go to hell in a hand basket without us.

We work with some of the funniest people in the world, who would lay down their life for us even if they wouldn’t hesitate to pull seniority for a shot at some easy overtime.

We take people to jail who have scared the living daylights out of their families and afterward we get to go home to a family that loves us.

No one but a cop has experienced the incredible love that comes on like a wave when you lean over and kiss your sleeping child after a really tough shift.

It’s great being a cop. Since March 3, 1991. American Law Enforcement has become a “True Profession” and still strives to learn from its mistakes and improve.

On the other hand, Rodney King lived his life knowing that 2,000 people would not have been seriously injured, 53 people would not have died, and 1,100 buildings would not have been destroyed if he would have just complied with a lawful arrest.

He collected $3.8 million for badly losing the fight he started. However, the money did not buy him a “Happily ever after ending,” for King continued to abuse alcohol, drugs, and some of the women in his life.

In the end, Rodney King the millionaire died alone in the bottom of his pool. 

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