It has been nearly a quarter of a century since the brutal police beating of Rodney King on March 3, 1991, shocked the nation after George Holliday released the video camera recording of the police beating to KTLA-TV in Los Angeles for the world to see. Even before the internet and online journalism carried articles worldwide in an instant, the Rodney King video camera footage became the most talked about video camera recording of its time. Watching the video camera recording was difficult and a sad reminder that human beings can become as brutal as any force of nature.
Although the Rodney King beating, after he was stopped by Los Angeles Police Department offers following a high speed chase on Interstate 210 in Los Angeles, was shocking to the nation for Americans who lived in Los Angeles the knowledge of police incidents with the LAPD was both feared and hated by many. The public perception of the LAPD was now accompanied by a video camera recording that documented the rumors of a sometimes violent force was not all conjecture. The video camera recorded the truth.
The public perception that the police officers had violated Rodney King’s civil rights and constitutional protections continues to feed into a mentality that there are incidents where police officers who violate the law contribute to police shootings and that the public responds with riots and public exhibitions of rage. This despair continues today much in the same way that the Rodney King beating created the worst riots in Los Angeles history causing over a billion dollars in lost revenue and property of small business owners and over 2000 people injured and 53 people killed.
The entire nation stopped to watch the scenes of Reginald Denny, an innocent truck driver, who was pulled from the cab of his truck and was nearly beaten to death on an American street by a ruthless mob.
Denny, age 33, was a driver for the Transit Mixed Concrete Company and had innocently driven his Kenworth T800 Tandem Axle Dump Truck onto Normandie Avenue and drove into the middle of a nightmare fueled by racial hatred and anger after the Rodney King verdict. With images of the video camera recording of the Rodney King beating still fresh in their minds angry, rage filled rioters, beat Reginald Denny into unconsciousness causing severe brain damage and 91 fractures. Denny had to undergo years of painful physical therapy and still has the scars from his brutal attack today. Having lived, studied, and worked in Los Angeles it was amazing to see the once peaceful streets transformed into a war zone. The military had to be called in to restore order. President Bush sent his vice president to Los Angeles to help to restore calm; however, the power of one video camera recording had already unleashed hatred and anger that was too powerful to stop.
Vice President Dan Quayle’s mission in Los Angeles was met with anger and distrust. Having lived and worked with police officers as an investigative reporter, the present writer understood that the actions of even a small and rogue group of police officers tainted not just those guilty of police brutality; moreover, powerless citizens felt that all police officers were somehow guilty. However covering the streets of Los Angeles as a journalism student at the University of Southern California revealed scenes of the Los Angeles Police Department in action both behind the scenes and in public against crime elements that few would argue were among the most shocking and brazen criminal behavior anywhere in the world.
Unfortunately, there was no video camera on the officers to record what the excellent video cameras issued to USC Journalism School students recorded. If those officers had video cameras in 1977 they would have recorded scenes where suspects resisted arrest, cursed and pulled knives and guns on arresting officers. Rodney King was not carrying a knife or gun. And angry Los Angeles rioters from South Central to Jefferson and Figueroa to 732 West 32nd Street only saw an unarmed man being beaten over and over again by armed police officers.
However, one sided the public viewing of police officers might have been, there is no question that police officers with personal video cameras recording their arrest would have been in a much better position to show the public exactly what occurred during an arrest. And the one sided view that the public has historically held regarding police arrest action is about to change in Washington, the District of Columbia.
The protection and service element of the Metropolitan Police Department will be assisted by the benefit of having MPD officers wearing video camera to record their interactions as they enforce the law and encounter citizens who may or may not comply with the police officer’s request to stop. Up until now it has always been the police officer’s word against the person being arrested or a witness to a tragic shooting giving their account of what took place. Cameras that have accurately recorded speeders and red light runners will now be used to record exactly what happens when police officers encounters a person who has been asked to stop and comply with police authority.
“MPD’s use of body worn cameras is intended to further the mission of the department and enhance service to the community by accurately documenting events, actions, conditions, and statements made during citizen encounters, traffic stops, arrests, and other incidents. In addition, the use of the cameras will help ensure the safety of both MPD and the public,” MPD said of the new pilot program. MPD Police Chief Cathy Lanier will join Mayor Vincent Gray to announce the deployment of the new program at City Hall from 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday September 24, 2014.
The use of personal video cameras on police officers will reflect what one New York City Law Enforcement veteran shared with the present writer. “First of all let me be clear, when a police officer stops a suspect there is always, I mean always, a concern that the encounter will become violent. I always tell people to make no sudden moves. Do not reach for a cellphone; do not reach inside a coat pocket for a wallet. [Note: Rodney King was reported by LAPD officers to be reaching to his back pockets when his beating began before the video camera started recording his beating. This has never been proven because there were no personal video cameras on the LAPD officers at the time of the Rodney King beating.] “To the police officer a split second could be the difference in giving a citation for speeding or losing his life,” the officer said.
When asked how shooting a suspect 40 or more times can be explained under any circumstances the officer explained, “You have to remember that when multiple police officers are called to a suspected crime scene they must all be alert and prepared to encounter armed and violent persons,” he said. As the law enforcement veteran spoke the memory of Zsa Zsa Gabor slapping a police officer came to mind. “When a call is given to open fire, it does not specify that Officer A or Officer B is to open fire. All officers open fire and some reload and continue to fire,” he said.
In recalling his real life terrifying experience the veteran of the New York City System recalled his being pulled over in street clothes by the NYPD. “I was lost leaving the prison in New York City and I made a wrong turn. I was pulled over by the NYPD. I put both of my hands on the steering wheel and froze.” He remembered.
The point for readers to note is that the New York Law Enforcement officer in this interview was a massively big and strong human being. He measured over 6’6 and 280 pounds. He also had a gun in the vehicle. “Let’s be frank here, to a New York Police Officer any black man with a gun is a threat. Even though I had my New York Law Enforcement ID around my neck, I was a threat to the officer who stopped me until NYPD had cleared my ID and my having a gun,” he said. Thus, the lesson was clear. Keep your hands on the steering wheel. Make no sudden moves. Do not reach for anything. Do not say anything to provoke the officer into thinking there is violent intent or action planned. By keeping his hands visible on the steering wheel and not making any sudden moves until the NYPD officer told him to get his license and registration the possibility of his being shot and killed by the arresting officer was reduced as much as possible. A call to headquarters and a license and registration check verified that the suspect was who he claimed to be. He was an officer of the city of New York and he was licensed to carry the handgun. “I was issued the Glock for my duties in New York City,” he told the arresting officer. Once his statement was proven to be true he was no longer a threat.
“The NYPD officer explained that the turn I made, even though I had made that turn a million times before, was illegal. I apologized and I was released.” The law enforcement veteran said.
If the man had reached inside the vehicle instead of placing both hands visibly on the steering wheel of his car in his moment of terror he would not have been seated outside a police station talking to the present writer. After four hours of questions and answers it was clear that being a police officer in New York City is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world and yet; Dan Rather, formerly of CBS News until 2005, once declared Washington, DC, as the murder capitol of the world. The job of a MPD police officer is no less difficult than the job of the NYPD. Video cameras will make the job of serving the residents of DC easier.
Even though Rodney King won a 3.8 million dollar settlement against the City of Los Angeles after his video recorded LAPD police beating his life was never the same. When he died at the age of 47 on June 17, 2012, after being found at the bottom of his swimming pool, 20 years after the incident, the physical scars and trauma were still with him. And the video camera recording of his beating still tells the story of what happened on that night in March of 1991.
Metropolitan Police Department body-worn camera pilot program is coming to Washington.