Twenty Years Later Rodney King’s Legacy is Still Mixed


Ernesto Galvan and John Hesselbein Illustrate How Far We Must Still Go –

“Well Martin’s dream has become Rodney’s worst nightmare. Can’t walk the streets, to them we are fair game, our lives don’t mean a thing…  Make sure it’s filmed, shown on national T.V.  They’ll have no mercy.  A legal lynch mob like the days strung up from the tree. The L.A.P.D.” – Ben Harper 1995.

This past week marked the 20-year anniversary of the beating of Rodney King.  I watched the special on CNN, and it was interesting to see how much Rodney King has cleaned up his life.  He did say the nightmares are still there, however.

In an interview, the LA Police Chief told the AP that another Rodney King incident would not happen again.

“Inarguably, we are a much better department,” he told reporters this week. “I have more faith in my police officers than to believe a Rodney King incident would happen today.”

” ‘Since then, the Police Department has made “great strides,” but it still has issues,’ said Peter Bibring, who has handled police issues as a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California,” the AP reported.

Mr. Bibring cited the 2007 immigration-rights rally in MacArthur Park, where officers used batons to hit demonstrators and fired rubber bullets into a crowd, injuring dozens of people. The Police Chief at that time, William Bratton, acknowledged the incident was improperly handled.

Mr. Bibring told the AP that an ACLU report in 2008, based on LAPD data from 2003 and 2004, “showed that blacks and Hispanics were disproportionally more likely to be stopped and searched by police.”

“There are still real issues of trust in some sectors of the community,” he said. “There’s still work to be done.”

The fact of the matter is that we do not have to look very far to find examples of apparent disproportionate uses of force – we have some in our own backyard.

Look no further than our own case involving the Galvan brothers, where police repeatedly hit Ernesto Galvan in the head with batons.

The incident occurred on June 14, 2005 around 3:30 am on Riverbank Road along the levee in West Sacramento. Both brothers were injured and hospitalized, with Ernesto Galvan’s injuries being the most severe, resulting in permanent damage and disfigurement.

The only difference between the Galvan case and Rodney King is that there was no videotape.  So, instead of the officers being on trial, the brothers were.  Juries hung three times before the DA, perhaps sensing public pressure, declined to file charges for a fourth time.

Ernesto Galvan, badly beaten, with permanent injuries including a 17-mm indentation to his skull, had been charged with two felony counts, one each against Officer Schlie and Officer Justin Farrington, of resisting detention/arrest, and with two misdemeanor counts of battery on the same two officers. The jury could not reach a verdict on any of these counts, and were hung 7 to 5 to acquit on all four counts.

In her closing arguments in the third trial, DDA Palumbo had argued the reasonableness of the officers’ actions and the appropriateness of their use of force.  She insisted that there had been justification for detention and arrest, that Officers Schlie, Farrington and Reeder followed protocol, and that the Galvans would not have been harmed if they had complied with police commands.

While also attempting to argue that the officers even showed restraint by not killing the Galvans, Ms. Palumbo reiterated that their injuries did not reduce their guilt.

There were holes though in the police account of the story that grew wider with each trial, but perhaps the scariest part was the testimony of Don Cameron, the police use-of-force expert witness.

A key moment in the last trial occurred during Martha Sequeira’s cross-examination of Mr. Cameron, as she represented Fermin Galvan as half of the defense team.

“The best part was when she asked him whether he’d be able to testify against a police officer, because doing so would mean he wouldn’t get business for his training classes,” Defense Attorney Palik, who represented Ernesto Galvan in the first and third trials told the SF Weekly. “I don’t think he had an answer for that.”

The SF Weekly had a great exchange between Mr. Palik and Mr. Cameron, from a previous trial:

“What about two batons against an unarmed man with bare hands and feet? Are you saying that’s appropriate?” Mr. Palik asked.

“Yes, sir, I am,” Cameron replied.

“And you were saying that an unarmed man who is kneeling on the ground, that would be appropriate as well. Is that true?” Mr. Palik said.

“If the person was continuing to swing at the officers in an attempt to assault them, it’s perfectly appropriate,” Mr. Cameron said.

“And he’s not trying to get up from the ground. It’s still appropriate?” Mr. Palik said.

“Yes, sir,” Mr. Cameron answered.

For those who believe somehow that Rodney King cannot happen again, consider that not only is Don Cameron testifying to justify the use of just about any amount of force by police officers in court, but he is the one who trains police officers at POST (Peace Officer Standards and Training) on how to apply force.

This is of course not the only example we can find in our region, as we have the report of the Elk Grove police officer who shot a handcuffed man in the back seat of his police vehicle.

We covered this case back in mid-February, and now Elk Grove resident John Hesselbein is suing Elk Grove police officers.

“The only thing that would make it more egregious is if the officer was a better shot,” Stewart Katz, the attorney who is representing Mr. Hesselbein, told KCRA two weeks ago.

Officers said Mr. Hesselbein threatened that he had a gun after being handcuffed and placed in the patrol car.

“Nothing he did justified that reaction,” Mr. Katz said. “Can’t imagine how a handcuffed individual saying anything would justify being executed.”

Mr. Katz has accused the police of misconduct and also of deliberately issuing false statements about the incident.

The ACLU has also gotten involved.

“Concerned is putting it mildly,” said Debra Reiger, a representative with the ACLU to KCRA. “It sounds like something that doesn’t seem right.”

“The ACLU is basically monitoring the situation and seeing the results that come in from the internal investigation,” said Cres Vellucci, a spokesperson for the ACLU’s Sacramento chapter. “We are concerned about the shooting and the follow-up as far as the police at this point.”

But not all is bad on the police front.  This week we also learned more about how Davis police handled distraught student Nicholas Benson.  Mr. Benson, in a highly publicized incident, was arrested after making threats to commit suicide, and potentially to commit “suicide by cop.”

However, police responded quickly and were able to prevent Mr. Benson from getting to his weapon in the car, they were able to subdue him with only the firing of a bean bag and later a Taser round.  And he was apprehended without harming himself or others.

The result is that Mr. Benson, who had some of the charges against him dropped and reduced, will be able to get the mental health treatment he needs and he has a chance to live a normal and productive life.

Have things improved in the 20 years since the Rodney King incident?  In LA the answer appears to be yes, but they have had to endure a number of bumps and bruises along the way. 

According the AP story, a lot has improved.

“The Police Department doesn’t have to be a catalyst for racial animosity,” Police Chief Beck told the AP. “The Police Department, through the sponsoring of public events, through its work in the community … has become the glue, the fabric that helps to hold diverse communities together rather than the force that splits them apart.”

A recent Harvard University survey found that police got an 83 percent approval rating across the city, Chief Beck said.

“I think you have a complete change in the way that the Police Department is viewed and the way that it serves this city,” he said.

Chief Beck told the AP that “the LAPD has overhauled the way it investigates public complaints and officer use-of-force incidents, and has become more transparent in its actions.”

“I have no problem admitting to mistakes,” the chief said.

However, while LA has learned their lessons, others have not.  Those who believe that Rodney King could not happen again – in LA or elsewhere – are not paying close enough attention to what is happening around them.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. E Roberts Musser

    I think the Davis Police Dept. explempifies what good police work is all about. The Davis Police Dept. seems to clearly understand that not every suspect needs to be beaten/shot to death for disobeying the direct orders of a police officer.

    However, the police have a very, very dangerous job. I can remember an experience I had one time traveling with my teenaged children to Santa Cruz on a busy Saturday morning. Traffic was very heavy, I was driving, and needed a break. I pulled over to the side of the road out of the heavy traffic, and had my son take over the wheel. As we switched drivers, and were just about ready to ease back into traffic, a police officer walked up on our passenger side, with his hand on his gun. I rolled down the window. The officer asked if there was any problem. I simply explained I had grown tired in the heavy traffic, and we decided to switch drivers. The police officer relaxed, told us he just wanted to check and make sure we were okay, and told us to have a nice day. It was his hand on the his gun that disturbed me.

    However, I also recognized how many police officers get shot and killed during simple traffic stops. I appreciated the fact that this officer had stopped to see if we needed any help. The officer was just taking precautions to protect his own safety, in case we were not as innocent as we appeared. I have never forgotten that encounter.

    By the way, Rodney King has hardly been a saint since the civil trial, in which he was awarded a large sum of money. From Wikipedia:

    “King was awarded $3.8 million in a civil case and used some of the proceeds to start a hip hop music label, Straight Alta-Pazz Recording Company.
    Like his father, King is an alcoholic. In 1993, he entered an alcohol rehabilitation program and was placed on probation after crashing his vehicle into a block wall in downtown Los Angeles. In July 1995, he was arrested by Alhambra police, who alleged that he hit his wife with his car, knocking her to the ground. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail after being convicted of hit and run.[31] On August 27, 2003, King was arrested again for speeding and running a red light while under the influence of alcohol. He failed to yield to police officers and slammed his vehicle into a house, breaking his pelvis.[32] On November 29, 2007, while riding home on his bicycle, King was shot in the face, arms, and back with pellets from a shotgun. He reported that it was done by a man and a woman who demanded his bicycle and shot him when he rode away.[31] Police described the wounds as looking like they came from birdshot, and said King offered few details about the suspects. In May 2008 King checked into the Pasadena Recovery Center in Pasadena, California, which was filmed as part of the second season of Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, which premiered in October 2008. Dr. Drew Pinsky, who runs the facility, showed concern for King’s lifestyle and said that King would die unless his addiction was treated.[33] He also appeared on Sober House, a Celebrity Rehab spin-off focusing on a sober living environment, which aired in early 2009. Both shows filmed King’s quest not only to achieve sobriety, but to reestablish a relationship with his family, which had been severely damaged due to his drinking.”

  2. Rifkin

    What day marks the 20th anniversary of the beating of Reginald Denny? What day marks the 20th anniversary of the looting of hundreds of small businesses by the fans of Rodney King? I hope you will write a commentary on those events. I suspect that the criminals who nearly killed Mr. Denny and the parents who were teaching their children the virtue of looting have reformed themselves far less than the LAPD. That’s where the real reform needs to take place–where thugs and outlaws rule.

  3. Roger Rabbit

    I have to agree with Mr. Rifkin.

    However, I also believe that the Government must he kept in check and held to a higher standard than that of thugs. The Gov has the power, money and resources to do whatever they want and the people should feel secure in their home and when contacted by police.

    I think most do feel safe with most police and most police are good caring people doing a tough job. With any profession, there will be the few that go too far or try and gain favor with those in power.

    People put too much blame on the police and not enough spread around to the lawyers, the DA, the courts and the law makers. Cops get their direction from many above them. In places where the DA is tough on cops and sets clear guidelines on what is accepted and what will be tolerated, there is less of these questionable uses of force.

    However when you have a DA like here in Yolo, cops are encouraged to get stats, get arrest, make cases, raise the numbers so more grant money can be obtained and high crime rates can justify more resources. Cops in Yolo know that the DA likes gang issues and most know that if they are doing the DA’s bidding, so to speak, then they are pretty safe from oversight or problems like persecution. I would bet it is common knowledge that if you do anything to raise the gang justification in Yolo, you will be on the good side of the DA. That is not good motivation for keeping things above board.

    Everything has a trickle down effect, when the top tolerates or promotes “win at all cost” behavior, then those lower will follow that lead.

  4. Rifkin

    FWIW, it has always been obvious to me–and I suspect to all fair-minded people–that the cops in the King case used waaaaay too much force on him. They should have the right to restrain, but not beat nearly to death.

    However, I think that situation with a drug-addled King was impossible to not get wrong in some respect. He was a terrible danger to himself, to the cops and to society at large. The police (AFAIK) did not have tasers and it’s not unlikely that tasering him would have failed. If instead of gang-tackling him and using a tremendous amount of group violence to restrain him a single officer had tried to get him under control, King (given his size, strength and madness) would have probably killed the officer. If everyone had backed off, King likely could have had his pick as to which officer he wanted to kill. And when he went after one, that officer probably would have shot him dead.

    I have always fancied the Marlin Perkins approach–shooting a tranquilizer–though someone on this blog explained why that would not work.

    There must have been a better approach than the one the LAPD used against King, but it was likely not in their quiver at that time.

    A case in the Mission District about a month ago, where the SFPD shot dead a man in a wheelchair, shows, the taser can be a far superior choice than shooting someone with a bullet. But the taser itself can be dangerous and has been abused by some officers and might not have worked with King.

    I would like to see police develop (or purchase from inventors) more non-lethal options* for dealing with maniacs like Rodney King. Maybe some kind of sticky net fired from a gun could have trapped King and rendered him harmless? Maybe some kind of tranquilizer can be developed which works fast yet won’t kill a person? I am not an expert on this question and don’t presume to know more than the cops know. I simply think that they need more options beyond taser, firing a gun or beating a man into submission.

    *I think some better option needs to be developed, also, for dealing with these maniacs in high-speed police chases. Far too many people are put in danger by these reckless attempts to catch car thieves and other criminals who don’t care about innocent lives. It seems like there should be some kind of system where they could fire something at the fleeing car which would shut down its electrical system. Or something (beyond the spike strips they now try to use) which takes out their tires more efficiently.

  5. Rifkin

    [i]”Maybe some kind of sticky net fired from a gun could have trapped King and rendered him harmless?”[/i]

    Here is an example of a net gun ([url][/url]). I don’t know how practical they are.

  6. E Roberts Musser

    To Rich Rifkin: From wikipedia: “Sergeant Koon then ordered the officers to “stand clear”. King was standing and was not responding to Koon’s commands. Koon then fired a Taser into King’s back. King groaned; momentarily fell to his knees; then stood back up and turned towards Koon. Koon fired the Taser again, knocking King to the ground.[13] Powell’s arrest report states that the Taser “temporarily halt[ed] [Defendant King’s] attack”, and Solano stated that the Taser appeared to affect King at first because “the suspect shook and yelled for almost five seconds”.[16]”

    There is an interesting new weapon the military are working on. It somehow generates an uncomfortable sensation that caused people to feel so uncomfortable they stop what they are doing or faint. It is designed for crowd control I think. More methods need to be explored on how to effectively disable a suspect via nonlethal means.

    As for stopping a car, there are ways to shut down the engine by law enforcement, but the problem there is I think installation of the device requires the owner’s permission. In consequence, this solution has gone nowhere…

  7. rusty49

    David, why don’t you do a story on how AT Holder refuses to prosecute the Blank Panthers from Philadelphia who intimidated voters at the polls in 2008? Last week Holder downplayed the incident and made a reference about “his people”, his people being blacks. Some AT, I thought he was supposed to be for all Americans. Can you imagine the outrage if a white AT had made a reference about “his people” while referring to white supremacist intimidation at a polling place?

  8. David M. Greenwald

    Elaine: There is no doubt that Rodney is not a saint, and he certainly did not do what we would recommend people do in police encounters. But that’s really not the point. The point is as Rich put it, “the cops in the King case used waaaaay too much force on him. They should have the right to restrain, but not beat nearly to death.” That is the same issue that I suspect is at the core of the Galvan case as well.

    Rusty: I’m trying to figure out what that has to do with this issue?

  9. Rifkin

    Elaine, thanks for the correction. I evidently got the lack of Taser quite wrong.

    One bit on Rodney King the person: an old friend of mine from my college days (who I don’t keep up with but happened to see about a year ago) is a TV post-production supervisor of some sort. I don’t know his exact job, but I know after a show is filmed, he works with the director to edit the various bits and assemble it into a finished product. He told me that he worked on the TV show Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, but he never met any of the “celebrities” or Dr. Drew. (I never saw that show.) But my friend said that the director or the producer or some bigwig on that show told him Rodney King was “the nicest guy” on that cast. Obviously, he wasn’t the nicest guy when he was assaulting women or driving hyped up on drugs the night he was beaten by the LAPD. But my friend said the crew was with him 24/7 for the entire rehab program and they all agreed “you could not meet a nicer person.” So hopefully he now has his act together.

  10. rusty49

    It has alot to do with this issue. You quoted Police Cheif Beck stating:
    “The Police Department doesn’t have to be a catalyst for racial animosity” but at the same time we have the number 1 law enforcement guy in the nation who’s supposed to uphold the laws of the land making racial statements and refusing to prosecute voter intimidation. How is that not
    “racial animosity”?

  11. Roger Rabbit

    Good points Rusty. There is a double standard out there. As for Holder, another lawyer putting his law degree tricks to use at the expense of Justice.

  12. David M. Greenwald

    I suggest that you are distorting what Holder said by claiming he was making racial statements, he simply did not accept that the issues were comparable.

    [quote]“When you compare what people endured in the South in the 60s to try to get the right to vote for African Americans, to compare what people subjected to that with what happened in Philadelphia, which was inappropriate….to describe it in those terms I think does a great disservice to people who put their lives on the line for my people.”[/quote]

    I fail to see what this has to do with with the topic of this article.

  13. David M. Greenwald

    [quote]There is a double standard out there. As for Holder, another lawyer putting his law degree tricks to use at the expense of Justice. [/quote]

    You are going to compare the actions of two Black Panthers privately standing on a street corner in Philly and intimidating one individual, to the actions of police beating individuals under the color of authority? Really. There is no double standard here. This is Rusty trying to change the subject.

  14. Roger Rabbit

    lol, well I guess I was referring to the double standard of if black cops shoot black guys it is not looked at the same as if white guys shoot a black guy. They should both be looked at equally.

    And the double standard of DA’s or Attorney Generals to be selective on who they prosecute and who the look the other way on. IE; Reisig likes to go after Mexicans and Gangs and Holder does not like going after two black guys intimidating people like gang members. Some could draw the conclusion that Reisig is white and racist against Mexicans and others could draw that Holder is racist and does not want to go after his own race. All depends on what you see or believe.

    I have to disagree with your take on Panthers privately standing on a street, you forgot they were armed with a club and were not just intimidating one person, but everyone the entered or walked by. The rules are different depending on who is looking and what they are seeing.

    Not trying to defend what happened to Galvan or the kid that shot in back and killed, both are pretty much inexcusable.

    But this blog tends to lean left and does not address the other side or issues of the leaning right very much and sometimes they are parallel.

  15. David M. Greenwald

    “lol, well I guess I was referring to the double standard of if black cops shoot black guys it is not looked at the same as if white guys shoot a black guy. They should both be looked at equally. “

    That’s one reason why I never excused the Gutierrez shooting on the fact that two of the officers were Hispanic. As the NWA song once noted, sometimes the worst thing is to have a black and a white cop together.

    “But this blog tends to lean left and does not address the other side or issues of the leaning right very much and sometimes they are parallel.”

    I guess there’s something to that. But on the other hand I think there’s an equivalency trap to. Part of Holder’s point is that the event in Philly, which he did call inexcusable, was equivalent to the history in the south or what happened in Selma. I look at issues of color authority and abuse of government power differently than I look at issues where individuals are the perps. We have police who are set up to catch the bad guys, but little set up when the police are the bad guys. And btw, I think most police are good guys, which is why I can readily pull out a few examples and also claim they are the exception.

  16. joe grey

    The History channel had an excellent historical documentary on the History of the Ku KLux Klan. It was very illuminating. Hope others, particularly regular contributors to the Vanguard, watched it. If they haven’t, hope they will in the near future.It explains a lot.

  17. Rifkin

    [i]”As the NWA song once noted, sometimes the worst thing is to have a black and a white cop together.”[/i]

    I’m guessing you are thinking of a song/rap (with a name that will be bleeped ([url][/url])) off of their Straight Outta Compton album. Never mind that the guys in NWA were not exactly pristine role models–though you have to admire the success they had as a group and later the success a few of them have had as actors in movies and TV–the point of that song is ridiculously perverse. It’s part of the mindset which holds back (in my opinion) some African-Americans from behaving properly because if they do they will be perceived as Uncle Toms. In effect, what NWA was saying is that blacks who are cops are part of the white power structure holding them down. This is the exact mindset which decries blacks who study hard and achieve greatness in school, or who simply speak proper English. My take on NWA–whether its members were really serious thugs as they portrayed themselves to be or just fakers–is that NWA’s anti-police stance was a marketing gimmick, albeit a terrible one, designed to glorify thug life. As such, their insistence that blacks should not be police officers was a hideous aspect of their terrible and hateful and counter-productive embrace of gangs and thugs who ultimately made their community unlivable.

    That does not excuse improper behavior by some LAPD. But the notion pushed by the NWA marketing gimmick is really a bad idea driven by people who didn’t have good intentions.

  18. David M. Greenwald

    Rich: There is a reason why I didn’t offer a direct quote. The sentiment however is pretty pervasive in the black community no matter what you think about NWA in the specific.

  19. E Roberts Musser

    There is plenty of “blame” to go around. Rodney King was no saint. However, the LAPD determined they had no boundaries when it came to suspects that disobeyed their commands. Holder sees voter intimidation as a minor blip when an ethnic minority is doing the intimidating. Black rappers exploit dislike of law enforcement and fomenting hate for economic gain. All of it is wrong – no matter how “relatively” wrong it is – which I consider the main point in this thread…

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