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Rodney King’s Police Brutality Case: What Went Wrong


Rodney Glen King is a black American man who has had several brushes with the law. For example, in the year 1989, this man was arrested and arraigned in court for robbery. Police claimed that he stole from a store and intimidated the owner of the store with a crude weapon. For this, Rodney King was sentenced to two years imprisonment in the state prison (Mullen & Skitka, 2006). This was just one of his several encounters with the Los Angeles Police Department (herein referred to as LAPD).

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On 3rd March 1991, something happened between this man and the police in Los Angeles. This event that happened shortly after midnight on this day snowballed into a political and media sensation. After a police car chase around the city and its suburbs, Rodney was arrested allegedly for driving under the influence. He was accompanied by two of his friend, and they were driving from a basketball match that they had attended in the evening before proceeding to a friend’s place for drinks. Rodney resisted arrest, and this led to the use of physical brutal force by the police officers. Later, Rodney would admit that he declined to pull over after he was flagged down by the police for fear of what driving under the influence charge will do to the status of his parole for a previous crime (Lou, 2001).

After resisting the arrest, police beat him up with batons and used taser on him to try and subdue him. This would have gone down as another case of undocumented police brutality but for the troubles of an eye witness outside whose apartment the alleged police brutality was taking place. George Holliday recorded the events involving batons raining on Rodney’s body. He tried to contact the police department with this tape but was dismissed. He had no option but to turn to the media. The recorded video tape was played on television, and the incident acquired a universal appeal. A great deal of public outcry against police brutality followed.

Four of the officers who were present during the arrest of Rodney were charged in court for use of excessive force. This culminated in the famous Rodney King Police Brutality case. However, the jury acquitted the officers of any wrongdoing, and this led to the infamous Los Angeles riots of 1992 (Martin, 2005). More than fifty people died as a result of these protests, and property worth millions was lost. After this, the police officers were charged afresh in court by the country’s Department of Justice. They were charged with violating federal civil rights, and two of them were found guilty. Rodney was to later secure a 3.8 million dollars settlement for a civil suit filed against the state (Martin, 2005).

These developments have generated a lot of interest in this case. A lot of studies and case analysis had been carried out into this event. However, one issue does arise regarding the police brutality case. What really went wrong with the case? This is especially so in light of the acquittals brought by the 12 member jury in the first case. What would have led to lack of conviction in this case?

These are some of the questions that will be addressed in this essay. The author will try to describe what they believe went wrong with the case. Evidence from other analyses into the case will be used.

Rodney King Police Brutality Case: What Went Wrong

Before embarking on an analysis of what could have really went wrong with the case, it is important to first provide a highlight of the events that took place immediately before and after the arrest of Rodney.

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After Rodney was arrested, the police accompanied him into the hospital (Mullen & Skitka, 2006). This was Pacifica Hospital, where he was treated for lacerations and other injuries emanating from the mishandling of the police officers.

Four police officers were charged shortly afterward by Los Angeles district attorney (Elise, 2008). These were Sergeant Stacey Koon, police officers Wind, Powell, and Briseno (Elise, 2008). They were charged with the use of excessive force, which was conceptualized to be a violation of Rodney’s constitutional rights. The judge under whom the case was initially filed was substituted, and the incoming member of the bench carried out several changes regarding the case. For starters, the venue and the members of the jury were changed (Mangan, n.d). The following year, the new set of juries acquitted the three officers charged together with sergeant Koon. However, the jury could not come into an agreement regarding one of the charges preferred against Powell (Mangan, n.d).

Several explanations have been suggested as to what went wrong in this case. Martin (2005) draws on the nonviolence theory of crime to analyze what could have gone wrong. This scholar is of the view that when police engage in brutality, there is the likelihood of the action backfiring and coming back to haunt them. Rodney’s case is a classic example of police brutality backfiring on them.

The police make use of several strategies to avert the backfiring or to mitigate the effects of this occurrence. Martin (2005) identifies five strategies that the police can use to achieve this. These are as follows:

Covering up the incident

Devaluing the victim

  1. Reinterpretation of the events
  2. Utilization of official channels to render the occurrence a halo of justice
  3. Use of intimidation, including bribery (Martin, 2005)

The use of these strategies might be used to explain what went wrong in this case.

Covering Up

Covering up was one of the potential tactics that would have been used by the police to derail the investigations. However, Rodney’s is a unique case where cover-up was not possible. This is given the fact that the video tape-recorded by Holliday captured the actions of the police vividly. The video was made public, and as such, covering up can not be said to be the major reasons explaining what went wrong with the case.

However, there are subtle indications of cover up in the case. When Holliday approached the police with the video tape, he was dismissed. One can not help but try to wonder what would have happened if the tape fell into the hands of the police. With no doubt, it would have been destroyed and police would have claimed it got lost. The dismissal by the police department was also a cover up effort, albeit one that backfired on them.

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Devaluing the Victim

Having failed with the cover up, the police used this strategy effectively to discredit Rodney in the eyes of the jury. This is perhaps one of the major reasons why the case went wrong. Sergeant Koon especially harped on the fact that Rodney was under the influence of not only alcohol but also drugs (Martin, 2005: Lou, 2001). The police especially used the criminal history of Rodney to discredit him further. In their defense, they claimed that he was a dangerous criminal, and the force used on him was in fact below that called for by criminals of his stature.

Reinterpretation of the Events

The police tried to reinterpret what took place trying to convince the public that actually, it was not an act of injustice as popularly believed. This strategy was especially effective given that social realities are relative, and they depend on individual interpretations of reality. The interpretation held by the 12 member jury seemed to be quiet different from that held by more than 200 million Americans. For example, police argued that Rodney was a very powerful man, and as such had to use force on him (Martin, 2005; Mullen & Skitka, 2006).

The police also convinced the jury that the force used on Rodney was justified. It escalated in accordance with the provisions of the Los Angeles police department (Mangan, n.d). Rodney was effectively blamed for the beating that was accorded him.

Use of Official Channels

One popular strategy used by the authorities to sate public outcry is the formation of commissions to investigate cases of injustices. This renders the whole process a halo of official justice.

In this case, the authorities came up with a grand jury to look into the matter (Mangan, n.d). An FBI investigation ensued, which was followed by the charges preferred against the four police officers in court. These developments worked until the jury bungled by acquitting the officers in the first case. The authorities made an appearance of a working system by convicting two officers in the second trial, quelling riots (Lou, 2001). The public was hoodwinked, and as such, the case was denied the public support it needed.

Intimidation and Bribery

Intimidation was discernible in this case. This is especially cited by Tom Owens, the chief investigator for the plaintiff’s team (Martin, 2005). This former officer was of the view that, every time a key individual in their team became public, scandalous information about them was leaked to the media. This was especially obvious when a doctor who had planned to set up a major investigating operation was exposed as having engaged in fraudulent dealings in the past. The doctor resigned shortly afterwards.

Several witnesses were tracked down, but majority of them could not publicly speak out for fear of police harassment (Martin, 2005). Things took a scary turn for the witnesses when one of the passengers in Rodney’s car during the beating died in a car crash a few months into the trial (Martin, 2005). This fuelled fear of police appraisals, and this intimidation may have led to the case not progressing effectively.


Interplay of several factors might have led to the acquittals of the officers in the first trial. This includes the intimidation of witnesses among others, as detailed above. However, despite this, Rodney’s case remains a historic example of police brutality.

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Elise, T. (2008). Rodney King forgives officers who beat him. The Washington Post.

Lou, C. (2001). Official negligence: How Rodney King and the riots changed Los Angeles and the LAPD. 3rd ed. Boulder: Westview Press.

Mangan, D. (n.d). Police brutality: The use of excessive force. Web.

Martin, B. (2005). The beating of Rodney King: The dynamics of backfire. Critical Criminology, 13(3), 307-326.

Mullen, E., & Skitka, L. J. (2006). When outcomes prompt criticism of procedures: An analysis of the Rodney King case. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 6(1), 1-14.

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