Thirty years after white police officers were caught on video beating a black driver named Rodney King, Los Angeles residents see persistent racism in local law enforcement as a bigger problem than in some other cities in the United States.
Rogue cops are more likely to be held accountable now than they were then, according to an exclusive poll by USA TODAY / Suffolk University in Los Angeles. But a majority of Angelinos say the LAPD still uses violence when it isn’t necessary, and a third of those polled describe the department itself as largely racist.
Polls this summer in Detroit and Milwaukee, part of a series called CityView, found mixed views about law enforcement in those cities. But the Los Angeles Police Department received the toughest ratings for treating local residents. The polls, sponsored by USA TODAY and Suffolk University Political Research Center, examine attitudes towards the police and the community in American cities.
In recent years, cell phone and body camera videos showing police violence against unarmed blacks have fueled the Black Lives Matter movement and helped make Eric Garner, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others household names.
Rodney King was, in a way, the first. On March 3, 1991, before cell phones and their cameras were ubiquitous, a Los Angeles plumber who happened to get a Sony camcorder a month earlier heard noise outside his home in the San Fernando Valley. From his balcony, he filmed the brutal scene of four white policemen who kicked, punched and punched King more than 50 times.
George Holliday, who made the grainy video, died two weeks ago at the age of 61 from complications from COVID-19. King, who received $ 3.8 million in damages from the city, struggled with drug and alcohol abuse for years. He drowned in his backyard swimming pool in 2012.
“It was probably one of the first real experiences of actual police brutality, and it was heartbreaking to see it over and over again in this video,” said Daniel Fitzgibbons, 41, a film finance producer and lifelong LA resident who is white. He was a teenager at the time and remembered watching TV reports of stores that burned during the riot that followed. “It was definitely something that opened my eyes to understand that sometimes the police can be wrong.”
The survey of 500 Los Angeles residents, conducted by landline and mobile phone from September 28 to October 1, has an error rate of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
An overwhelming 86% of respondents said King’s beating had a huge impact on their city. Only 9% said this was not the case.
‘Have you been in jail lately?’
Three decades later, Angelinos remember Rodney King.
Six out of ten respondents personally remember the 1991 event, and another three out of ten heard about it later. Only 8% say they have never heard of King and the confrontation that would tear the city apart. When a jury from Simi Valley did not convict any of the police officers involved, the DATE broke out in Los Angeles in six days with rioting that cost 64 lives and caused an estimated $ 1 billion property damage.
King’s beating and its aftermath had a huge impact on Los Angeles and its residents, an overwhelming 86% of the city’s residents say today. But only 29% believe the relationship between the community and their police force has improved since then. A majority say relationships are now either worse (32%) or about the same (26%).
Half of black residents say relationships have deteriorated; Only 1 in 5 say they are better.
“It has changed to a certain extent and got a little better, but it hasn’t got where it belongs, let’s just say it,” said Terry Hall, 63, a service rep who is Black Follow-up discussion after the survey. Recently, “I was stopped and … one of the questions I was asked was, ‘Have you been in jail recently?'”
32 percent of respondents agree with the statement: “LA police are racist in their dealings with people, even if some of them are trying to do a good job.” Instead, sixty percent agree: “The LA police force generally do a good job treating people of different races fairly, even if there are a few bad apples in the police force.”
That’s a more negative verdict than Milwaukee and Detroit residents of local law enforcement in CityView polls. Although they had some criticism of police officers, 77% to 16% of Detroit residents said the city’s police force treated people fairly for the most part. In Milwaukee, this was the 63% -29% view.
More:An exclusive poll shows that Detroit residents are far more concerned about public safety than they are about police reform
More:In one city: Milwaukee residents unhappy with police amid statewide reckoning
Angelinos are also more likely to say that local police use force when it is not necessary. That is the opinion of 52% of the people in Los Angeles, compared to 34% in Detroit and 45% in Milwaukee.
“As a gay Latino man, I constantly fear that I will be stopped by the police for something like a traffic review and it will escalate further,” said Rene Vega, 38, a health care manager. “Anything to do with the breed, I don’t think they have improved” since King’s strike and the riot that followed.
“I remember when I was a kid I was scared of hearing the helicopters and the military on the street at night,” he said. “I remember my father losing his job because his shop was right in Vermont and Washington, and the looters ransacked the shop and then burned it down.”
Beliefs are considered more likely today
One thing has changed: Los Angeles residents say rogue officials are now more likely to be brought to justice by the courts. In 1992, all four officers were acquitted of assault and three of the four were acquitted for using unnecessary force. The jury held the Force charges against the fourth officer.
A year later, two of the four were convicted of violating King’s civil rights.
Almost two thirds of respondents (63%) say that civil servants are now more likely to be convicted; only 8% say this is less likely.
“The police now have to be much more careful because they are being put to the test,” says Melanie Mohr, 45, who works in the entertainment industry. However, she fears that the effect could put the officers in danger. “Any misstep in judgment will be potentially retired or punishable, and I think this is a sad and frightening situation for them.”
Those concerns could also make police enforcement less effective, warned Tony Mattera, 43, a dock worker whose grandfather is a retired LAPD officer.
“They do their best to get the amount of push back that they get,” said Mattera, who is white. “It’s not even pushing back from the community; it’s pushing back from their own council and senior officials and their own department. These people are not allowed to do the policing they used to do and solve the problem.”
For all of her criticism of the local police, Angelinos also admits that she is relying on her. A 54 percent majority called the police for help at some point. Almost nine in ten would likely provide information to the police if they witnessed a crime. By more than 3-1, 64% -19% they would feel safer if there were more than fewer police officers on duty in their neighborhood.
But almost a third, 32%, support the idea, which was not defined in the survey, of “debilitating the police”. That’s more than the percentages supporting the progressive slogan in Detroit (23%) and Milwaukee (29%). In Los Angeles, over 6 in 10, 61% are in favor of cutting police funds and using the money for social services to help the homeless and the mentally ill.
More:Rodney King’s daughter helps African American fathers spend time with their children
Overall, Los Angeles residents were twice as likely to give the police the lowest rating “poor” (20%) than the highest rating “excellent” (10%). Twenty-nine percent rated the LAPD as “good” and 38% as “fair”.
These assessments split on racial grounds. While 53% of whites and 54% of Hispanics rated the police as fair or bad, 80% of blacks and 69% of Asian Americans did.
Juanita Sumby, 44, a lifelong Angelino, says police racially motivated misconduct hasn’t changed over the years, but awareness of it has changed. “It has always been like that,” she said. “The fact that people have cell phones somehow I think brought it to light.”
She can still remember the day three decades ago when she first saw the shocking video of Rodney King’s beating.
“I just remember playing the tape on the news in cycles and seeing him get beaten up by those cops,” said Sumby, who is Black. “I have a brother, and my uncles and grandfather, all black men, I think it was painful for them to watch too – very traumatic – because I think they all experienced similar behavior from the LAPD.”