Four officers were charged with assault with a deadly weapon and use of excessive force. Three were acquitted of all charges. The jury acquitted the fourth officer of assault with a deadly weapon but failed to reach a verdict on the use of excessive force. The jury deadlocked at 8–4 in favor of acquittal at the state level. Within hours of the acquittals, the 1992 Los Angeles riots started, based on outrage about the verdicts by African Americans. It lasted six days, during which 63 people were killed and more than 2,000 were injured; it ended only after the governor ordered in the California national guard to re-establish control.
The federal government prosecuted a civil rights case, obtaining grand jury indictments for violations by the four officers of King's civil rights. Their trial in a federal district court ended on April 16, 1993, with two of the officers being found guilty and sentenced to prison. The other two were acquitted of the charges.
King was born in Sacramento, California in 1965, the son of Ronald and Odessa King. He and his four siblings grew up in Altadena, California. King attended John Muir High School and often talked about being inspired by his Social Science teacher Robert E. Jones,. King's father died in 1984 at the age of 42.
On November 3, 1989, King robbed a store in Monterey Park, California. He threatened to hit the Korean store owner with an iron bar, and hit him with a wooden pole. King stole two hundred dollars in cash during the robbery. He was caught, convicted, and sentenced to two years imprisonment. He was released on December 27, 1990, after serving one year in prison.
While still a teenager, King fathered a daughter with his girlfriend Carmen Simpson. He later married Danetta Lyles (cousin to rapper Mack 10) and fathered a daughter. King and Lyles were eventually divorced. He later married and fathered a daughter with a woman named Crystal Waters. This marriage also ended in divorce.
Early on the morning of March 3, 1991, King, with his friends Bryant Allen and Freddie Helms, was driving a 1987 Hyundai Excel/Mitsubishi Precis west on the Foothill Freeway (Interstate 210) in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. Prior to driving onto the freeway, the three men had spent the night watching a basketball game and drinking at a friend's house in Los Angeles. At 12:30 a.m., officers Tim and Melanie Singer, husband-and-wife members of the California Highway Patrol, noticed King's car speeding on the freeway. The officers pursued King, and the pursuit reached high speeds, while King refused to pull over. King would later admit he attempted to outrun the police at dangerously high speeds because a charge of driving under the influence would violate his parole for his previous robbery conviction.
King exited the freeway near the Hansen Dam Recreation Center and the pursuit continued through residential surface streets, at speeds ranging from 55 to 80 miles per hour (89 to 129 km/h). By this point, several police cars and a police helicopter had joined in the pursuit. After approximately 8 miles (13 km), officers cornered King in his car near the corner of Foothill Boulevard and Osborne Street (34.273154°N 118.392762°W / 34.273154; -118.392762). The first five LAPD officers to arrive at the scene were Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Theodore Briseno, and Rolando Solano.
Officer Tim Singer ordered King and his two passengers to exit the vehicle and to lie face down on the ground. Passenger Bryant Allen claims he was manhandled, kicked, stomped, taunted, and threatened. Freddie Helms was hit in the head while lying on the ground. Helms was treated for a laceration on the top of his head. His bloody baseball cap was turned over to police. King remained in the car. When he finally did emerge, he was reported to have been gagged, to have patted the ground, and waved to the police helicopter overhead. King grabbed his buttocks, which Officer Melanie Singer took to mean King was reaching for a weapon, though he was later found to be unarmed. She drew her pistol and pointed it at King, ordering him to lie on the ground. Singer approached, gun drawn, preparing to effect an arrest.
At that point LAPD Sergeant Stacey Koon, the ranking officer at the scene, told Singer that the LAPD was taking tactical command of the situation. He ordered all officers to holster their weapons.
LAPD officers are taught to approach a suspect without his/her gun drawn, as there is a risk that any suspect may gain control of it if an officer gets too close. Koon ordered the four other LAPD officers at the scene—Briseno, Powell, Solano, and Wind—to subdue and handcuff King using a technique called a "swarm." This involves multiple officers grabbing a suspect with empty hands, in order to quickly overcome potential resistance. As four officers attempted to restrain King, King resisted by standing to remove Officers Powell and Briseno from his back. The officers later testified that they believed King was under the influence of the dissociative drug phencyclidine (PCP), although King's toxicology tested negative for the drug.
King was twice tasered by Koon. This marks the approximate start of the period that George Holliday videotaped of the incident. In the tape, King is seen on the ground. He rises and rushes toward Powell—as argued in court, either to attack Powell or to flee—but regardless, King and Powell collided in the rush. Taser wire can be seen on King's body. Officer Powell strikes King with his baton, and King is knocked to the ground. Powell strikes King several more times with his baton. Briseno moves in, attempting to stop Powell from striking again, and Powell stands back. Koon reportedly said, "That's enough." King rises again, to his knees; Powell and Wind are seen hitting King with their batons.
Koon acknowledged ordering the continued use of batons, directing Powell and Wind to strike King with "power strokes." According to Koon, Powell and Wind used "bursts of power strokes, then backed off." The officers ruthlessly beat King, who was already subdued. While police procedure does authorize the use of baton "power strokes", the methods used by the officers in this situation were clearly outside of procedural norms. In the videotape, King continues to try to stand again. Koon orders the officers to "hit his joints, hit the wrists, hit his elbows, hit his knees, hit his ankles." Officers Wind, Briseno, and Powell attempted numerous baton strikes on King, resulting in some misses but with 33 blows hitting King, plus six kicks. The officers again "swarm" King, but this time a total of eight officers are involved in the swarm. King is placed in handcuffs and cordcuffs, restraining his arms and legs. King is dragged on his abdomen to the side of the road to await the arrival of emergency medical rescue.
George Holliday shot his videotape of the incident from his apartment near the intersection of Foothill Boulevard and Osborne Street in Lake View Terrace. Two days later, Holliday called LAPD headquarters at Parker Center to let the police department know that he had a videotape of the incident, but he couldn't find anyone who was interested in seeing the video. He went to KTLA television with his videotape. The station cut ten seconds of the video, before the image was in focus, that showed an extremely blurry shot of King charging at the officers. Later members of the jury said that this cut footage was essential to their decision to acquit the officers. The footage as a whole became an instant media sensation. Portions were aired numerous times, and it "turned what would otherwise have been a violent, but soon forgotten, encounter between the Los Angeles police and an uncooperative suspect into one of the most widely watched and discussed incidents of its kind."
The Holliday video of the Rodney King arrest is a fairly early example of modern surveillance, wherein private citizens, assisted by increasingly sophisticated, affordable video equipment, record significant, sometimes historic events. Several "copwatch" organizations subsequently were started throughout the United States to safeguard against police abuse, including an umbrella group, October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality.
King was taken to Pacifica Hospital after his arrest, where he was found to have suffered a fractured facial bone, a broken right ankle, and multiple bruises and lacerations. In a negligence claim filed with the city, King alleged he had suffered "11 skull fractures, permanent brain damage, broken [bones and teeth], kidney failure [and] emotional and physical trauma". Blood and urine samples taken from King five hours after his arrest showed that he would have been intoxicated under California law at the time of his arrest. The tests also showed traces of marijuana (26 ng/ml). Pacifica Hospital nurses reported that the officers who accompanied King (including Wind) openly joked and bragged about the number of times King had been hit. Officers also obtained King's identification from his clothes pockets at that time. King sued the city and a jury awarded him $3.8 million as well as $1.7 million in attorney's fees. The city did not pursue charges against King for driving while intoxicated and evading arrest. District Attorney Ira Reiner believed there was insufficient evidence for prosecution. His successor Gil Garcetti thought that by December 1992, too much time had passed to charge King with evading arrest; he also noted that the statute of limitations on drunk driving had passed.
After four days of grand jury testimony, the Los Angeles district attorney charged officers Koon, Powell, Briseno and Wind with use of excessive force on March 14, 1991. Sergeant Koon, whose only action was to deploy the Taser was, as the supervisory officer at the scene, was charged with "willfully permitting and failing to take action to stop the unlawful assault".
On August 22, 1991, the California Court of Appeal removed the initial judge, Bernard Kamins, after it was proved Kamins told prosecutors, "You can trust me." The Court also later granted a change of venue to the city of Simi Valley in neighboring Ventura County, citing potential contamination due to saturated media coverage.
Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley created the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department, also known as the Christopher Commission, in April 1991. Led by attorney Warren Christopher, it was created to conduct "a full and fair examination of the structure and operation of the LAPD," including its recruitment and training practices, internal disciplinary system, and citizen complaint system.
Though few people at first considered race an important factor in the case, including Rodney King's attorney, Steven Lerman, the Holliday videotape was at the time stirring deep resentment in Los Angeles, as well as other major cities in the United States. The officers' jury consisted of Ventura County residents: ten white, one Latino, one Asian. Lead prosecutor Terry White was African American. On April 29, 1992, the jury acquitted three of the officers but could not agree on one of the charges against Powell.
Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley said, "The jury's verdict will not blind us to what we saw on that videotape. The men who beat Rodney King do not deserve to wear the uniform of the LAPD." President George H. W. Bush said, "Viewed from outside the trial, it was hard to understand how the verdict could possibly square with the video. Those civil rights leaders with whom I met were stunned. And so was I and so was Barbara and so were my kids."
Within hours of the acquittals, the Los Angeles riots of 1992 began, lasting six days. African American communities were outraged by the verdicts. By the time the police, the U.S. Army, Marines and National Guard restored order, the riots had resulted in 53 deaths, 2,383 injuries, more than 7,000 fires, damage to 3,100 businesses, and nearly $1 billion in financial losses. Smaller riots occurred in other cities such as San Francisco, Las Vegas in neighboring Nevada, and as far east as Atlanta, Georgia. A minor riot erupted on Yonge Street in Toronto, Ontario, Canada as a result of the acquittals.
During the riots, on May 1, 1992, King made a television appearance in which he said,
"I just want to say - you know - can we all get along? Can we, can we get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids? And... I mean we've got enough smog in Los Angeles let alone to deal with setting these fires and things... it's just not right - it's not right. And it's not going to change anything. We'll get our justice; they've won the battle, but they haven't won the war. We'll get our day in court and that's all we want. And, just, uh, I love - I'm neutral, I love every - I love people of color. I'm not like they're making me out to be. We've got to quit - we've got to quit; I mean after-all, I could understand the first - upset for the first two hours after the verdict, but to go on, to keep going on like this and to see the security guard shot on the ground - it's just not right; it's just not right, because those people will never go home to their families again. And uh, I mean please, we can, we can get along here. We all can get along - we just gotta, we gotta. I mean, we're all stuck here for a while, let's, you know let's try to work it out, let's try to beat it, you know, let's try to work it out."
The widely quoted line has been often paraphrased as, "Can we all just get along?" or "Can't we all just get along?"
After the acquittals and the riots, the United States Department of Justice sought indictments of the police officers for violations of King's civil rights. On May 7, federal prosecutors began presenting evidence to a Los Angeles [federal] grand jury. On August 4, the grand jury returned indictments against the three officers for '...willfully and intentionally using unreasonable force...' and against Sergeant Koon for '...willfully permitting and failing to take action to stop the unlawful assault...' on King." Based on these indictments, a trial of the four officers in the United States District Court for the Central District of California began on February 25, 1993.
The federal trial focused more on the incident. On March 9 of the 1993 trial, King took the witness stand and described to the jury the events as he remembered them. The jury found Officer Laurence Powell and Sergeant Stacey Koon guilty, and they were subsequently sentenced to 30 months in prison. Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno were acquitted of all charges.
During the three-hour sentencing hearing, the federal trial judge, John Davies, accepted much of the defense version of the beating. He strongly criticized King, who he said provoked the officers' initial actions. Judge Davies stated that only the final six or so baton blows by Powell were unlawful. The first 55 seconds of the videotaped portion of the incident, during which the vast majority of the blows were delivered, was within the law because the officers were attempting to subdue a suspect who was resisting efforts to take him into custody.
Davies found that King's provocative behavior began with his "remarkable consumption of alcoholic beverage" and continued through a high-speed chase, refusal to submit to police orders, and an aggressive charge toward Powell. Davies made several findings in support of the officers' version of events. He concluded that Officer Powell never intentionally struck King in the head, and "Powell's baton blow that broke King's leg was not illegal because King was still resisting and rolling around on the ground, and breaking bones in resistant suspects is permissible under police policy."
Mitigation cited by the judge in determining the length of the prison sentence included the suffering the officers had undergone because of the extensive publicity their case had received, high legal bills that were still unpaid, the impending loss of their careers as police officers, their higher risks of abuse while in prison, and their undergoing two trials. The judge acknowledged that the two trials did not legally constitute double jeopardy, but nonetheless "raised the specter of unfairness."
These mitigations were critical to the validity of the sentences imposed, because federal sentencing guidelines called for much longer prison terms in the range of 70 to 87 months. The low sentences were controversial, and were appealed by the prosecution. In a 1994 ruling, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected all the grounds cited by Judge Davies and extended the terms. The case was appealed by the defense to the U.S. Supreme Court. Both Mr. Koon and Mr. Powell were released from prison while they appealed the Ninth Circuit's ruling, having served their original 30-month sentences with time off for good behavior. On June 14, 1996, the high court reversed the lower court in a ruling, unanimous in its most important aspects, which gave a strong endorsement to judicial discretion, even under sentencing guidelines intended to produce uniformity.
Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley offered King $200,000 and a four-year college education funded by the city of Los Angeles. King refused and sued the city, winning $3.8 million. King invested a portion of his settlement in a record label, Straight Alta-Pazz Records, which went out of business. He later went on to write a book and make a movie about his life.
King was subject to further arrests and convictions for driving violations after the 1991 incident. On August 21, 1993, he crashed his car into a block wall in downtown Los Angeles. He was convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol, fined, and entered a rehabilitation program, after which he was placed on probation. In July 1995, he was arrested by Alhambra police after hitting his wife with his car and knocking her to the ground. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail after being convicted of hit and run. On August 27, 2003, King was arrested again for speeding and running a red light while under the influence of alcohol. He failed to yield to police officers and slammed his vehicle into a house, breaking his pelvis. On March 3, 2011, the 20th anniversary of the beating, the LAPD stopped King for driving erratically and issued him a citation for driving with an expired license. This arrest led to his February 2012 misdemeanor conviction for reckless driving.
On November 29, 2007, while riding home on his bicycle, King was shot in the face, arms, and back with pellets from a shotgun. He reported that the attackers were a man and a woman who demanded his bicycle and shot him when he rode away. Police described the wounds as looking as if they came from birdshot.
In May 2008, King checked into the Pasadena Recovery Center in Pasadena, California, where he filmed as a cast member of season 2 of Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, which premiered in October 2008. Dr. Drew Pinsky, who runs the facility, showed concern for King's lifestyle and said King would die unless his addiction was treated. He also appeared on Sober House, a Celebrity Rehab spin-off focusing on a sober living environment,
During his time on Celebrity Rehab and Sober House, King worked on his addiction and what he said was lingering trauma of the beating. He and Pinsky physically retraced King's path from the night of his beating, eventually reaching the spot where it happened, the site of the Children's Museum of Los Angeles.
King won a celebrity boxing match against ex–Chester City (Delaware County, Pennsylvania) police officer Simon Aouad on Friday, September 11, 2009, at the Ramada Philadelphia Airport in Essington, Pennsylvania.
In 2009, King and other Celebrity Rehab alumni appeared as panel speakers to a new group of addicts at the Pasadena Recovery Center, marking 11 months of sobriety for him. His appearance was aired in the third-season episode "Triggers".
On September 9, 2010, it was confirmed that King was going to marry Cynthia Kelly, who had been a juror in the civil suit he brought against the City of Los Angeles.
The BBC quoted King commenting on his legacy. "Some people feel like I'm some kind of hero. Others hate me. They say I deserved it. Other people, I can hear them mocking me for when I called for an end to the destruction, like I'm a fool for believing in peace."
In April 2012, King published his memoir, The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption. Co-authored by Lawrence J. Spagnola, the book describes King's turbulent youth as well as his personal account of the arrest, the trials, and the aftermath.
On June 17, 2012, King's fiancée Cynthia Kelly found him lying at the bottom of his swimming pool. Police in Rialto received a 911 call from Kelly at about 5:25 a.m. (PDT). Responding officers found King at the bottom of the pool, removed him, and attempted to revive him. He was transferred by ambulance to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton, California and was pronounced dead on arrival at 6:11 a.m. (PDT) The Rialto Police Department began a standard drowning investigation and stated there did not appear to be any foul play. On August 23, 2012, King's autopsy results were released, stating he died of accidental drowning, and that a combination of alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, and PCP found in his system were contributing factors. The conclusion of the report stated: "The effects of the drugs and alcohol, combined with the subject's heart condition, probably precipitated a cardiac arrhythmia, and the subject, incapacitated in the water, was unable to save himself." King had been a user of PCP. Rev. Al Sharpton delivered the eulogy at King's funeral. King is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Hollywood Hills), Los Angeles, California.
Rodney King has become a symbol of police brutality, but his family remembers him as a "human not a symbol”. Despite being a victim of brutality, King never advocated for hatred or violence against the police, saying that we needed to “all get along”. King's message of “can we all just get along” became the foundation of what he stood for; since his death, his daughter Lori King has worked with the LAPD to build bridges between the police and the African-American community.
The beating of Rodney King and its aftermath has been addressed frequently in art, including the 1997 film Riot, the 2014 one-man play Rodney King by Roger Guenveur Smith, which has been produced by Spike Lee and released on Netflix in 2017; and the 2016 exhibit Viral: 25 Years from Rodney King. Morgan Freeman and Lori McCreary will be producing a docuseries through their company Revelations Entertainment on the life of Rodney King, to be released in 2018.
King is featured in a documentary titled LA 92 (2017). King's beating and the aftermath were also featured in the Emmy-winning television series American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson in 2016. These events, including the riot, were portrayed as part of the context for residents' reaction after the officers had been acquitted, when many people believed they had abused King. In that period, the African-American community had suffered continued harassment and discrimination by the LAPD, and they remembered it in the O.J. Simpson criminal trial. They were ready to believe that the LAPD had framed Simpson.