Publicity Surrounding Trial of Officers in Rodney King Beating
Teresa Cox
Limestone College
Publicity Surrounding Trial of Officers in Rodney King Beating
Rodney King in the late hours of March 2, 1991, after hanging out with some friends drinking was first spotted speeding down the freeway by the California Highway Patrol (CHP). Since he was going way over the speed limit, the CHP attempted to pull him over, but he kept going. As the CHP was chasing King, he ran traffic lights and finally stopped. During the pursuit other law enforcement personnel were called in. Some of the LAPD officers on the scene included Laurence Powell, Stacey Koon, Theodore Briseno, and Timothy Wind. After everyone in King’s car was ordered to exit and lie face down on the ground, King had problems with complying. While the initial patrol officer was attempting to arrest King, Koon stepped in assuming that he would cause them problems because of his size and he thought he was high on PCP. King was said to have resisted the arrest by several officers and a taser was used on him to no avail.

During the struggle, George Holliday in his apartment near the scene heard the commotion and started recording with his video camera. The video begins just as King advanced towards Powell and from there he received continuous kicks and strikes with police batons all over his body before he is handcuffed. According to Martin (2005), Holliday contacted the police about witnessing someone getting beat by law enforcement and said he had video footage, but the desk officer didn’t show any concerns (p. 9). He then gave his video footage to a local television station. Of course, the news people at the station thought that the overwhelming and disturbing footage should be aired. After the video was aired locally, CNN and other networks ran footage of the beating as well and it took off like wildfire. The part of the video that repeatedly aired on television was without the initial seconds showing when King charged at Powell. After the footage aired, over 90% of people polled in LA thought that law enforcement used excessive force (Linder, 2018).
Although, all charges against King were dropped, indictments were returned against LAPD officers Koon, Briseno, Wind, and Powell. The trial was moved to Simi Valley from LA because the officers might not receive a fair trial due to the large amount of publicity that was received. Weinstein and Lieberman (1992) reported that Simi Valley was a city filled with mostly white conservatives and was known to be where law enforcement like to reside. This is maybe where the publicity coverage should have focused more on the demographics of the jury selected not consisting of anyone African American and what could happen if there were acquittals. The jury that consisted of mostly whites came back with a verdict of not guilty for Wind, Koon, Briseno, and deadlocked on Powell. Soon after the announcement of the not guilty verdicts, the city of LA was up in flames, rioting, and looting. Extra police and the military had to be brought in because the rioting was so out of control.
Since the trial coverage was constantly aired by the media, everyone viewing got to see firsthand what they thought was an injustice. Most of those that rioted acted out of anger at what they believe to be was the LAPD getting away with brutality against a minority. Maybe if the entire video footage was televised by the media as much as the shortened version the public may have had a different view of the beating, even though it was excessive use of force. During the rioting, President Bush announced on television that the LAPD officers would be charged with federal crimes. King also made an appearance on television pleading “Can we all get along?” (Linder, 2018).
There were a few heroes televised helping during the rioting. White trucker driver Reginald Denny got caught up in the devastation as he was driving his eighteen-wheeler. He was pulled from his truck by a mob of people as a helicopter recorded the brutality. Bobby Green, a black truck driver, was at home watching the rioting on television while Denny was severely beaten. He went to the scene where he and some other individuals rescued Denny and drove him to the hospital. Rogers (2017) reported that Green received threats for helping Denny. Although Denny had to undergo several surgeries because of his injuries, he met and forgave his attackers publicly and two of them publicly apologized to him. If it wasn’t for the publicity covering the attack on Denny as it was happening, he probably would have died without the brave efforts of Green and the others that saved him.
The released video footage brought to the public’s attention of the police misconduct and racism that was often not dealt with. I believe that if Holliday would not have recorded the beating, we probably would not have known exactly what happened to King that night. The beating could’ve been covered up by the LAPD like it was reported to have happened on many other occasions (Cannon, 1998). The Christopher Commission that was called for by Mayor Tom Bradley reported that Chief Daryl Gates often failed to control his officers that were often reported for using excessive force (Timmons, 2016).
In conclusion, the publicity coverage of the beating, the trial, and the riots was reported all over the country and internationally. The media frequently playing the footage of the beating with the first several omitted seconds made most believe that King was beaten because of his race which led to false assumptions of what most thought would be guilty verdicts. Perhaps, if Gates would’ve been more prepared for a riot after receiving such massive amount of public complaints, the violence would not have been at such a devasting level. But, the media did report on King’s past criminal history along with his disorderly behavior when he drank and that could be why some said that it was he was at fault for how everything went down. There were some negative and positive things that resulted from Holliday recording the video and releasing it the media. Attention was brought to the many problems minorities had with the LAPD. Chief Daryl Gates under public pressure to resign finally retired. Cannon (1998) stated that the publicity helped make some changes in law enforcement practices, added much needed manpower to their forces, received better training, and equipment. There was a negative image cast on Simi Valley because the jury selected from that city acquitted the officers. The most devastating of all is over fifty people lost their lives, thousands were injured, and property damage was over $900 million.

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