The Limits of Videotape: An Echo of Rodney King

The Limits of Videotape: An Echo of Rodney King

By Lou Cannon - December 8, 2014

Many people are understandably outraged that a New York police officer who fatally choked Eric Garner was not indicted by a grand jury for his death. But anyone who knows what happened in the Rodney King case should not be surprised that an amateur videotape of Garner’s arrest did not result in his indictment.

What everyone remembers about the African-American King, because it’s so hard to forget, are videotaped images of him being brutally beaten by white Los Angeles Police Department officers. Four of the officers were promptly indicted. After an appeals court moved their trial out of Los Angeles to neighboring and police-friendly Simi Valley, the officers were acquitted. The acquittals triggered the deadly Los Angeles riots of April 1992.

But that is not close to the full story of the King arrest.

On March 3, 1991, a husband-and-wife team of California Highway Patrol officers pursued King on Los Angeles freeways at speeds of up to 100 miles an hour. The chase ended near the darkened entrance to a county park in an obscure suburb. The woman CHP officer drew her gun and shouted at King, who was intoxicated, to lie on the ground. When King didn’t comply and the officer continued to advance in his direction, an LAPD sergeant on the scene who feared the incident might end in a shooting, took over the arrest.

The sergeant tried to arrest King by the book, yelling at him to lie on the ground. When he didn’t, the sergeant directed four LAPD officers to jump on King and handcuff him. King, a large and muscular man, threw them off his back. The sergeant then shot him with an electric stun gun known as a Taser, which fires two cassette cartridges that connect with skin or clothing through small darts, each generating 50,000 volts of electricity. The darts struck King, who groaned and fell to the ground. When he arose and rushed toward one of the officers, they believed he was under the influence of the drug PCP.

About the time King was moving toward the officer, an amateur cameraman in an apartment across the street who had been awakened by police sirens began shooting video. He had not witnessed the several minutes in which the officers attempted to take King into custody without using their police batons. The videotape of the beating of King lasts 81 seconds. The cameraman took it to a local television station, which edited it to 68 seconds, eliminating blurry footage that also omitted King’s charge at the officer. What remained is what most of us saw again and again on television: white officers savagely beating a helpless black man for no apparent reason.

Covering the trial for The Washington Post, I was a few feet from the jurors when the unedited tape was played for them. The jaw of the jury forewoman literally dropped open; she had suspected there was more to the video than she had seen on television, and the playing of the unedited tape confirmed her fears. Worse, it was first played in the courtroom by the prosecutor, operating on the well-worn theory that it’s better to put potentially damaging evidence on the record and explain it before attorneys for the other side can do so.

The prosecution was behind the eight ball from these opening moments, although much of the media covering the televised trial didn’t realize it. Neither did the leadership of the LAPD and the civilian leaders of Los Angeles, all of whom were woefully unprepared for the verdicts. The lack of preparation created the context for riots in which 53 people died and much of South Central Los Angeles was left in ruins.

Among other things, the King case exposed limitations of videotape that are with us still. Much has changed, of course. The King arrest occurred in an era when videos were a rarity and smartphones that could take a picture of anything did not exist. Videotapes of police officers chasing, tackling, or hitting suspects are now regularly seen on television. They may seem conclusive to viewers watching from the comfort of their couches but they often do not result in indictments or convictions.

Why is that? One reason may be that videotape invites a rush to judgment because the viewer is inclined to think it tells the full story. Often it doesn’t. In the case of a police action, it also fails to convey what was in the officer’s mind when he had to make a split-second decision. According to FBI data, 76 law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty in 2013 and 49,000 were assaulted. As was often said during the trial of the LAPD officers accused of using excessive force against King, police officers expect to come home at night.

The Garner homicide is obviously very different than the King beating. To begin with, King was not killed, though the sergeant who intervened believes he might have been had he not taken over the arrest. King had been a menace on the freeways. For various reasons, we don’t know King’s blood alcohol or whether he was on PCP, but lawyers for both sides stipulated at the trial that he was intoxicated.

There is no sign from the videotape of the Garner arrest that he did anything except refuse to be taken into custody. The videotape, however, is open to interpretation as to exactly how Garner was killed. Chokeholds, which cut off the flow of blood in the carotid arteries, are outlawed by the NYPD, as they are by most departments. It’s not clear from the videotape widely seen on television if the police officer at the center of the controversy used a classic chokehold or just put his hands around his throat and choked him before falling on Garner and cutting off his breath.

There’s much else we don’t know. It now turns out that the grand jury saw four videotapes of the incident. Do they all tell the same story? The multi-racial grand jury also heard from many witnesses over many weeks, and their testimony has not been released. It’s understandable that many people are angry over what happened in New York and Ferguson, Mo., and Cleveland (where a 12-year-old with a toy gun was killed by a police officer), especially since the victims all are African-American. But we should not assume that the grand jury acted unreasonably.

The word “unreasonable” will become a key test as federal investigations move forward in New York and Ferguson. For the federal government to prove that the officers violated the civil rights of Michael Brown or Eric Garner, they will have to show that the officers acted “willfully” and used unreasonable force. As several lawyers have pointed out, these words mean different things to different people and are applied on a case-by-case basis.

In Los Angeles, two of the four officers, including the sergeant who oversaw the beating, were convicted of violating King’s civil rights. The prosecution had political overtones because President George H.W. Bush, surveying the ruins of the Los Angeles riots, had promised that the federal government would pursue the case.

On the face of it, the Obama administration has a much steeper hill to climb than the Bush administration did in proving a civil rights violation. The LAPD officers who beat King had readily been indicted by a grand jury, while in the Ferguson and New York cases, the grand juries declined to indict. But this is an evolving situation that calls for caution in making predictions.

As a reporter, I covered the state and federal criminal trials of the LAPD officers (and subsequent civil trial) and wrote a book about the case. After all these years, doubts linger.

In the federal trial, presided over by a fair-minded judge who was commended by both sides, the prosecution made a strong and at times brilliant case. But it wasn’t a fair fight. As I learned from interviewing jurors after the trial, some of them were fearful that there would be another riot if they acquitted all the defendants. Every night the jury foreman would look out the window of his high-floor hotel room at South Central L.A. He would joke about it, telling other jurors that the city wasn’t burning. One day a bomb scare forced all the jurors to return to their hotel. I have no doubt that the jurors did their best, but they were under pressure.

On the other hand there might never have been a riot in the first place and the need for another trial had not an appellate court violated its own precedents by granting a change in venue when the officers were tried in a California court. The appellate judge who wrote the opinion told me she had wanted to move the trial out of the politically charged Los Angeles media market. But the trial judge, rejecting options to move the trial to such faraway and less overheated venues as Sacramento, put it within driving distance of his home, which was in the Los Angeles media market. There were only a handful of African-Americans in the jury pool and none made it to the jury.

The prosecutors believe to this day that they would have secured convictions if the case had remained in Los Angeles, and I’m inclined to agree. But one never knows what would have happened on the road not taken.

What we do know is that there’s almost always more than what appears on the videotape. The lessons of the Rodney King case should give us pause. 

Lou Cannon is the author of “Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD.”

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