4 minute read

Rodney G. King

The 1991 beating of Rodney G. King by Los Angeles, California, police led to state and federal criminal prosecution of the law enforcement officers involved in the assault, a civil jury award of $3.8 million to King for his injuries, and major reforms in the Los Angeles police department. In addition, the April 1992 acquittal of the white police officers for the beating of King, an African American, touched off riots in Los Angeles that rank as the worst in U.S. history. The controversy surrounding each of these actions raised the issues of race, racism, and police brutality in communities throughout the United States.

On the evening of March 3, 1991, Rodney King was driving his automobile when a highway police officer signaled him to pull over to the side of the road. King, who had been drinking, fled, later testifying that he was afraid he would be returned to prison for violating his PAROLE. A high-speed chase ensued with a number of Los Angeles police officers and vehicles involved. The police eventually pulled King over. After King got out of his car, four officers—Stacey C. Koon, Laurence M. Powell, Timothy E. Wind, and Theodore J. Briseno—kicked King and hit him with their batons more than fifty times while he struggled on the ground.

Unbeknownst to the officers, an amateur photographer, George Holliday, videotaped eighty-one seconds of the beating. The videotape was shown repeatedly on national television and became a symbol of complaints about police brutality.

The four officers were charged with numerous criminal counts, including assault with a deadly weapon, the use of excessive force, and filing a false police report. Because of the extensive publicity surrounding the case, the trial of the four police officers was conducted in Simi Valley, a predominantly white community located in Ventura County, not far from Los Angeles. During the trial the prosecution used the videotape as its principal source of evidence and did not have King testify. The defense also used the videotape, examining it frame by frame to bolster its contention that King was resisting arrest and that the violence was necessary to subdue him. The defense also contended that the videotape distorted the events of that night, because it did not capture what happened before and after the eighty-one seconds of tape recording.

On April 29, 1992, the jury, which included ten whites, one Filipino American, and one Hispanic, but no African Americans, found the four police officers not guilty on ten of the eleven counts and could not come to an agreement on the other count. The acquittals stunned many persons who had seen the videotape. Within two hours riots erupted in the predominantly black

A still from amateur photographer George Holliday's videotape of the March 3, 1991, beating of Rodney King by members of the Los Angeles Police Department.

South Central section of Los Angeles. The riots lasted seventy hours, leaving 60 people dead, more than 2,100 people injured, and between $800 million and $1 billion in damage in Los Angeles. Order was restored through the combined efforts of the police, more than ten thousand NATIONAL GUARD troops, and thirty-five hundred Army and Marine Corps troops.

In the riot's aftermath, criticism of the Los Angeles police, which had escalated after the King beating, grew stronger. Many believed that the longtime police chief, Daryl F. Gates, had not sufficiently prepared for the possibility of civil unrest and had made poor decisions in the first hours of the riots. These criticisms, coupled with the determination by an independent commission headed by Warren G. Christopher (a distinguished attorney who served in the STATE DEPARTMENT during the administration of President JIMMY CARTER) that Gates should be replaced because of the brutality charges, placed increasing pressure on the police chief. Gates finally resigned in late June 1992.

In August 1992 a federal GRAND JURY indicted the four officers for violating King's CIVIL RIGHTS. Koon was charged with depriving King of DUE PROCESS OF LAW by failing to restrain the other officers. The other three officers were charged with violating King's right against unreasonable SEARCH AND SEIZURE because they had used unreasonable force during the arrest.

At the federal trial, which was held in Los Angeles, the jury was more racially diverse than the one at Simi Valley: two jury members were black, one was Hispanic, and the rest were white. This time King testified about the beating and charged that the officers had used racial epithets. Observers agreed that he was an effective witness. The videotape again was the central piece of evidence for both sides. On April 17, 1993, the jury convicted officers Koon and Powell of violating King's civil rights but acquitted Wind and Briseno. Koon and Powell were sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

King filed a civil lawsuit against the police officers and the city of Los Angeles. After settlement talks broke down, the case went to trial in early 1994. On April 19, 1994, the jury awarded King $3.8 million in COMPENSATORY DAMAGES. However, the jury refused to award King PUNITIVE DAMAGES. In July 1994 the city of Los Angeles struck a deal whereby King agreed to drop any plans to appeal the jury's verdict on punitive damages. In return, the city of Los Angeles agreed to expedite payment of King's compensatory damages.


Cannon, Lou. 1997. Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD. New York: Times Books.

Deitz, Robert. 1996. Willful Injustice: A Post-O.J. Look at Rodney King, American Justice, and Trial by Race. Washington, D.C.: Regnery.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Jokes to Robert Marion La Follette