Tuesday, May 1, 2012

LA Riots 20: The Christopher Commission and King Verdict (Part 3)

Part 1: The Prologue



By the time the Rodney King trial started on March 4, 1992, the world had seen what those four cops did to him. The world was watching movies like Do the Right Thing and Boyz N The Hood highlight the urban experience in grittier, harsher fashion than Blaxploitation films in the 1970’s.  They were listening to rappers like Ice Cube, Ice-T, Public Enemy and others decry police brutality and reflect the environment of Black communities around the country.

For the first time, people were questioning the LAPD’s harsh tactics and there was hope things could change. Before becoming Secretary of State under Bill Clinton, Warren Christopher was an attorney who spearheaded a commission to investigate the structure and operation of the LAPD. The Christopher Commission, similar to the McCone Commission after the Watts Riots, released its findings in the summer of 1991. A sampling follows:

“Los Angeles should have a Police Department whose Chief is accountable to civilian officials for the department’s performance and where ranking officers are responsible for the conduct of those they lead. The Police Commission needs new personnel, more resources and an enhanced commitment to carrying out its duties under the Charter. Ugly incidents will not diminish until ranking officers know they will be held responsible for what happens in their sector, whether or not they personally participate."

Of the approximately 1,800 officers that had allegations of excessive force, the Commission found that more than 1,400 had only 1 or 2 allegations. Yet 183 officers had four or more allegations of excessive force or improper tactics. 44 police officers from 1986 to 1990 had six or more allegations. Yet those officers were usually given positive performance evaluations.

What the Commission revealed was a culture of racism/bias/discriminatory practices. It revealed that the mostly White police department was encouraging this and it created tensions that showed what happened to Rodney King was not an anomaly.

The Commission called for plenty of reform, transparency and accountability as well for Chief Daryl Gates to step aside after his long-tenured service. Yet to nobody’s surprise, once Richard Riordan was elected mayor in 1993, the Christopher Commission’s ideas were either carried out slowly or eventually ignored by the late 1990’s.

Clockwise from top left, Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno

Meanwhile, we still had a trial to watch. Four officers (Sgt. Stacey Koon and Officers Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind and Theodore Briseno) were charged with beating Rodney King and we figured it’d be a slam-dunk case right? Since everybody had seen the video and you had senators decrying the beating. But here’s where the justice system screwed up despite having a Black prosecutor.

1. The trial was moved to Simi Valley due to oversaturation of the media coverage swaying jurors. Need to know how lilywhite Simi Valley is? It’s home to the Ronald Reagan Museum – the president whose policies deeply affected the inner cities and poorer people.

2. On that note, the jurors ultimately selected? 10 White people, one Latino and one Asian-American. Remember that I’ve already pointed out the two worlds of Los Angeles and that many in the outside of South Central world blamed the South Central world for its problems. A homogenous jury did not bode well for that.

Factor that all in and it STILL is surprising that despite overwhelming evidence, 29 days of testimony and 55 witnesses, 3 of the officers (Koon, Wind and Briseno) were found not guilty and Laurence Powell was acquitted on a hung jury who deadlocked on one count of excessive force. Powell’s charge took up most of the seven days of deliberation as within six (!!!) hours, the jury was clear on the not guilty verdicts. 

Officer Laurence Powell hugs his attorney after the verdict is read. 
*It should be noted that Briseno testified against the other three and Powell delivered the lion’s share of the blows. How the jury was confused about Powell’s role and not Briseno who admitted to stomping King but backed off and even restrained an officer is beyond me.

President George W. Bush was sickened by the verdict. LA Mayor Tom Bradley criticized the verdict saying it wouldn’t blind them to what the world saw. I had no idea what would happen after practice when the verdict was read. My 2nd grade classmates and I talked about Rodney King but I was more focused on playing my 1st season of T-Ball. 

Looking back, that verdict makes me angry. It defies all logic and common sense and there is nobody who could watch that tape and tell me Rodney King deserved that beating. One juror admitted she was pressured to acquit but refused to do so in Powell’s case. The two worlds of Los Angeles saw the same thing and some chose to see it differently than the majority of us.

Nobody in the city could’ve expected the hell and furious anger that was about to erupt in a frightening way. 

Part 4: All Hell Breaks Loose
Part 5: The Aftermath

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