A drive ends in nightmare

Shortly before 12:30 a.m. on Sunday, March 3, King was driving fast down the Foothill Freeway near San Fernando, at the northern edge of Los Angeles. With him in his white 1988 Hyundai sedan were two friends, Bryant Allen and Freddie Helms.

King, a 25-year-old unemployed construction worker with two children, had been released in December after serving six months of a two-year sentence for second-degree robbery (brandishing a tire iron, he had taken cash from a grocer) and was still on parole.

In a California Highway Patrol car, a husband-and-wife team, T.J. and Melanie Singer, reported to their headquarters that the Hyundai approached them from behind at 110 or 115 mph, a Highway Patrol spokesman, Sgt. Mike Brey, said later.

Although a number of news reports have asserted that the small car cannot reach such speeds, Brey said that at the time of the report it would have been traveling downhill.

"There was no chase," King told reporters the following Wednesday night, when he was released from jail without charges. "I may have been speeding just a little bit."

An audio tape of police radio conversations, released Friday, picks up the chase after the Highway Patrol called in the Los Angeles police when King's car exited the freeway. A police helicopter was also called in.

Then, the audio tape shows, he led his pursuers in a circle through a darkened neighborhood at about 55 mph in a 40-mph zone. "Vehicle stopped at red light but failed to yield to police," a radio transmission from a pursuing car said. Based on the statements of Brey and a review of the audio tape, it appears that the pursuing officers that King had a criminal record.


Awakening to commotion

About 12:45 a.m., King pulled over and stopped on Foothill Boulevard, a four-lane street running through the relatively sparsely settled, middle-class, mixed neighborhood of Lake View Terrace. At least 15 officers in patrol cars converged on him.

In what other police officers called a chance deployment, all of the pursuing officers were white. The force is 14 percent black.

The wailing sirens and the thunderous roar of the helicopter woke many residents of an apartment complex across the street. Josie

Morales, a 26-year-old service representative for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, looked out her second-floor bedroom window and saw the Hyundai and police cars pulling up behind it. Morales said she and her husband Heriberto, put on robes and walked onto their balcony before the police or King got out of their cars.

Morales said she heard a muffled command from one police car. King she said, got out of his car with his hands up, turned and put his hands on the roof. Then, she and other witnesses said, he knelt, then lay on his stomach, with three or four officers standing in a semicircle around him.

There are contradictory accounts of what happened next. According to Richard Talkington, a Los Angeles police detective, the report filed by the officers on the scene said King tried to stand up while being handcuffed, causing one officer to fall.

Talkington, who said he had reviewed the report as part of the routine initial inquiry, said the officers also reported that King had reached into his pants pocket, an action that presumably would have raised concern among the officers that he might have a weapon.

The report said King charged at the officers after standing up, and kicked and swung at them, according to the detective's account. The full police report has not been released.

Morales and other witnesses said they did not see King reach into his pocket, knock over an officer or charge at the police. But one other resident of the apartment complex who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she saw a brief scuffle.

King said that after lying down he was handcuffed and got an electrical shock from "some kind of device."

"After they shocked me the first time, they paused for a minute and then they struck me across the face real hard with a billy club," King said. "I was lying face down with my hands tied, and they shocked me again on the other side of my shoulder."


Illuminated by headlights

A minute or two after King got out of his car and lay down, another resident of the apartment complex went onto his balcony. George Holliday, a 31-year-old manager of a plumbing-supply business, was carrying his new Sony video camera. He started shooting the scene unfolding across the street, which was well-illuminated by street lights and police car headlights.

The opening seconds of the videotape show King leaping up, spinning to his right and taking one or two quick steps. He was not handcuffed or tied, and it cannot be determined whether he had yet been beaten.

A close viewing of the unedited, seven-minute videotape—spanning the time from King's abrupt motion to a point where he lies handcuffed, hogtied and bleeding at the side of the road—shows one officer swinging his nightstick at King like a baseball bat as King rose and turned. King fell to the ground.

The tape blurs for several seconds. When the focus is restored, one officer is seen striking King repeatedly around the head and shoulders.

At that point, the tape shows one of the officers holding a Taser stun gun that has been fired at King, although it remains unclear whether the Taser was fired before or after the videotaping began.

A Taser (the name is a loose acronym for "Tom Swift's Electric Rifle") shoots two barbed darts that deliver an electric shock to immobilize a suspect. The darts remain connected to the Taser by a wire, which is visible on the tape throughout the beating.

The videotape shows two officers beating King ferociously for just less than two minutes. A third officer joined in from time to time to kick or hit King. The officer with the Taser paced about 10 feet away, keeping the wire leading to the darts from getting tangled as King spun and rolled under the force of the blows.

Later, King showed journalists a bruise on his right side that he said was caused by the Taser darts and the shocks. Los Angeles police regulations say the darts should be removed only after the suspect has been restrained.

The soundtrack is dominated by the roar of the helicopter. But a voice can be heard repeatedly screaming "Stop!" As the beating nears an end, one of the officers seems to be yelling at King. The audio quality is poor, but it sounds like he is saying, "Hands behind your back" as King is struck repeatedly.

At one point King, lying face I down, moves his arms as if to put his hands behind his back. An officer stomps on his head or neck causing him to jerk his arms up to his head.

The use of the nightsticks and Taser guns are regulated by the department's "Use of Force" rules which permit their use only when all other reasonable means of subduing a suspect have been exhausted, or when a suspect poses a danger.

Only once on the videotape did any officer try to intervene. One officer briefly raised his left arm in front of a nightstick-swinging colleague in the opening moments of the videotape. But the gesture had no discernible effect.

There appear to have been 15 law enforcement officers and at least six patrol cars on the scene. Two cars and at least three officers were from the Highway Patrol.

Witnesses said about 20 residents were on their balconies or gathered along the metal fence separating the street from the apartment complex.

"We were yelling, 'No, don't kill him!'" said Elois Camp, a 65-year-old retired teacher who watched from the patio of her first-floor apartment. "They paid us no attention."

The officers made no apparent attempt to conceal or stop the beating, despite the presence of so many witnesses and at least three passing cars, one of which slowed almost to a stop.

The beating ended just less than two minutes into the videotape, when one of the officers grabbed King's arms and handcuffed his hands behind his back. Half a dozen officers around him, and one apparently pulled out the Taser darts. He was then hogtied—his cuffed hands lashed to his ankles behind his back—and dragged face down to the side of the street, where he was left alone.

The rest of the videotape shows the officers milling around, moving their cars off the street, searching King's car and patting down one of his passengers, either Helms or Allen. The tape ends with King still lying by the road.

Witnesses said about five minutes elapsed after the beating before an ambulance came. They said King was still hogtied and handcuffed when he was loaded on the stretcher.

After the ambulance left, witnesses said, the police freed Allen and Helms, who walked to where many residents were still gathered asked where they could find a pay phone, then walked down the street. Neither Allen nor Helms has been charged; their lawyers declined to permit them to be interviewed.

King was jailed until Wednesday, when he was released without charges. He was then examined by doctors who said they found nine skull fractures, a shattered eye socket and cheekbone, a broken leg, a concussion, injuries to both knees and nerve damage that left his face partially paralyzed.

On Friday, a sergeant and three patrolmen were indicted.


Steady increase in lawsuits

The beating has raised a central question: Was it an aberration, as Gates said, or part of a pattern?

Complaints of police brutality and racism have continued, and verdicts and settlements against the department have risen over the decades, from $553,000 in 1972 to $6.4 million in 1989 to $8 million in 1990.

In one case, a jury found Gates personally liable for $170,000 in damages in 1988 for a beating some of his officers gave a Hispanic family while searching for a murder weapon.

One of the four officers charged in the beating of King had previously been disciplined for excessive use of force. Officer Theodore J. Briseno was suspended for 66 days in 1987 after he beat a handcuffed man.

The others indicted were Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and Officers Timothy E. Wind and Laurence M. Powell. Koon and Powell were also charged with filing false reports.

One former officer used the term "magic pencil" to describe the way the police can make potential allegations of misconduct disappear.

In the first two months of this year there was a sharp rise in complaints filed against the police—127 for two months, against a yearly average over the last five years of about 600. About 25 percent of the complaints involve allegations of assaults by the police. On average, only two of the 600 complaints a year result in felony charges.

When people talk about police brutality in Los Angeles, they talk about the Dalton Avenue case in 1988, in which 77 officers invaded the homes of two black families and engaged in what one lawyer called "an orgy of violence," ripping out sinks and toilets and smashing windows and television sets in apparent retribution for a telephoned threat to a police station.

Officers scrawled "LAPD Rules" on a wall outside the building, then beat residents as they arrested them. Four officers have been charged in the case. The city settled lawsuits by the residents last year for $3 million.

Also well-remembered is the case of Eula Love, a black woman who in 1984 refused to allow a utility man to cut service to her home. When the police were called, she emerged holding a paring knife with a two-inch blade and was immediately shot dead.

Another case that received little publicity but which bears similarities to the videotaped beating was the 1987 beating of Stuart Vigil, a 27-year-old white man. As Vigil, handcuffed and high on drugs, struggled against the police, 14 officers shot him with a Taser, kicked him in the head, then jumped on him. He died clutching the darts embedded in his chest.

In a recent case, about 30 youths, most of them Hispanic or black, were rounded up by the police when they entered a park in an affluent, mostly white neighborhood one afternoon. They were ordered at gunpoint to lie on the ground, then to walk on their knees while the officers jeered at them and made racial slurs, according to a suit filed here.

Rodney King, continued
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