20 years after Rodney King verdict, police misconduct still a problem

Twenty years have passed since the verdict in the Rodney King beating case, and yet the problems of police brutality and racial profiling remain with us.

On April 29, 1992, a mostly white jury found four Los Angeles Police Department officers not guilty of assault with a deadly weapon and excessive force against 25-year-old Rodney King following a high-speed chase on March 3, 1991. Police struck King more than 50 times with their batons, tasered him and kicked him in the head. Unlike most such incidents, this one was captured on videotape.

The verdict outraged black and Latino communities, who had suffered through years of police brutality and racial profiling. After the acquittals, riots broke out in South Central Los Angeles, resulting in 53 deaths and $1 billion in property damage.

Two decades later, some things have changed. The LAPD was forced to clean up its act and improve the way it interacts with citizens. Now the force is regarded as a model for community policing and reform.

The recent shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., reminded America that race still takes its toll in America. Further, the failure of police to immediately arrest George Zimmerman — the neighborhood watch member and self-professed shooter — highlighted the ways in which police treat victims of color with less urgency than white victims.

The Martin case bears some similarities to the police shooting of Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., a black 68-year-old Marine veteran who was tasered and fatally shot by White Plains, N.Y., police. Police came to his home and broke down his door after his medical alert pendant had triggered a false alarm. In a recording made by his medical device, officers were heard mocking his military past and using the N-word. More than 200,000 people have signed an online petition demanding justice for Chamberlain.

In New York — where the city is still haunted by the shooting deaths of unarmed black men such as Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell — racial profiling and suspicion-less stop-and-frisks are rampant.

According to a report by the Center for Constitutional Rights, in recent years, the New York Police Department made 150,000 unjustified or unconstitutional stops. Most stops occurred in black and Latino communities. Black and Latino suspects are more likely to be stopped than whites, whether in areas with low crime, diverse communities or mostly white neighborhoods. And they are treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than their white counterparts.

Further, the post-9/11 era increased police surveillance of minority groups. For example, the Associated Press won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on an NYPD surveillance program that spied on Muslim students, mosques and businesses.

Rodney King asked, “Can’t we just get along?”

The answer, at least from some police departments, seems to be no.

David A. Love is a writer based in Philadelphia, the executive editor of BlackCommentator.com and a contributor to theGrio and The Guardian. His blog is davidalove.com. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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