Rodney King Found Dead at Age 47

Rodney-King-capReports have come in this morning, that Rodney King, whose beating and the subsequent acquittal of police officers led to a three-day riot in parts of Los Angeles in 1992, has been found by his fiance at the bottom of a pool this morning.

Details are sketchy at the moment.

Here is a column I wrote on March 6, 2011 “commenmorating” the 20-year anniversary of the beating.

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

    Sad ending to a checkered life. One would have hoped that Rodney King could have found some peace and contentment in his life after the beating incident and the fact that he was later vindicated as not having deserved such brutal treatment at the hands of the police. But he continued to have trouble w the law for years after that was my understanding. However, I read where he was recently engaged to be married, but at the young aged of 47 was found drowned in a swimming pool. No foul play seems to have occurred. Very sad – he was much too young to die, and there was still hope for him to find that contentment that seemed to elude him…

  2. Rifkin

    [i]”he continued to have trouble w the law for years after”[/i]

    Mostly he was a drug addict and an alcoholic and a serial woman beater, after retiring from his career as a strong-armed robber. Rodney was a big guy, and when he got wasted and beat up his babies’ mamas, he did serious damage to them. There are far greater tragedies than Rodney King dying at age 47.

  3. David M. Greenwald

    You are correct Rodney King was not a hero. He didn’t do anything that one could consider heroic. He was an accidental figure in history whose name will be remembered for some time. But he was an important figure. The beating as many people argued at the time publicized for the world to see what happened regularly in LA (and elsewhere) and needed to change.

    I disagree with Rich, I believe he was a tragic figure. He was never able to escape this incident, it haunted him. It deeply bothered him that people died as the result of his trial. He was never able to completely break free of his past, his drug addictions, etc. I think that makes him a tragic figure.

  4. Alan Miller

    I have had the entirety of Rodney King’s speech on my refrigerator door since May 1992. It is moving in its simplicity and emotion. Snippets do not convey the depth of what he said that day. For those commenting who must cast judgement on what you know of King as either “good” or “bad” according to you value system, I cast judgement upon you: as simple minds.

    [u]Here is Rodney King’s 5-1-1992 speech[/u]:

    [i]People, I just want to say, you know, can we, can we all get along? Can we get along?

    Um, can we stop making it, making it hard for the older people and the kids and I mean, we’ve got enough smog here in Los Angeles, let alone to get killed with setting these fires and things.

    It’s just not right. It’s not right. It’s not going to change anything. We’ll get our justice. They’ve won the battle, but they haven’t won the war. We’ll have our day in court, and that’s all we want.

    I love – I’m neutral, I love every – I love people of color. I’m not like they’re . . . making me out to be.

    We’ve got to quit. We’ve got to quit. You know, after all, I mean, I could understand the first upset, for the first two hours after the verdict, but to go on, to keep going on like this and to see that security guard shot on the ground.

    It’s just not right. It’s just not right, because those people will never go home to their families again, and I mean, please, we can get along here.

    We all can get along. We’ve just got to stop. You know, I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s, you know, let’s try to work it out. Let’s try to work it out.[/i]

  5. Rifkin

    [i]”I disagree with Rich, I believe he was a tragic figure.”[/i]

    I never said he was not a tragic figure. I said him dying is not the most tragic thing: “There are far greater tragedies than Rodney King dying at age 47.”

    [i]”It deeply bothered him that people died as the result of his trial.”[/i]

    It’s hard to know what bothered him or did not. By his own admission, and by his conviction for strong-armed robbery where he nearly beat to death an old Korean man in a convenience store when Mr. King was hyped up on cocaine and robbing the old man of his hard-earned money, Rodney didn’t always care that much about the harm he brought on other people. I am not sure how much he cared about his latest wife when he put her in the hospital after a beating.

    One thing I do know* is that as a young child, Rodney was repeatedly beaten by his alcoholic parents, especially his mother. So perhaps the most important lesson from King’s life is don’t hit your kids. They take those beatings to heart, and then become terrible adults who beat others, including their spouses, their children and others they mean to harm.

    *I heard Dr. Drew Pinsky mention this on the Adam Carolla Podcast back when Rodney King was Dr. Drew’s patient on a TV show I never saw.

  6. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]RichRifkin: Mostly he was a drug addict and an alcoholic and a serial woman beater, after retiring from his career as a strong-armed robber. Rodney was a big guy, and when he got wasted and beat up his babies’ mamas, he did serious damage to them. There are far greater tragedies than Rodney King dying at age 47.[/quote]

    [quote]dmg: I disagree with Rich, I believe he was a tragic figure. He was never able to escape this incident, it haunted him. It deeply bothered him that people died as the result of his trial. He was never able to completely break free of his past, his drug addictions, etc. I think that makes him a tragic figure.[/quote]

    As I understand it, Rodney King had neurologic damage to his brain from drugs, alcohol, and possibly the beatings he took as a child. He also had learning disabilities. That is by way of explanation, not an excuse. He got caught up in an incident and its aftermath that resulted in tragedies not of his own making. Afterwards, he had many golden opportunities to change his life around, but never could seem to do what was necessary. He was engaged to be married, then accidently drowns in a pool at the relatively young age of 47. I consider that a huge waste of a life – by his own choice. Humanity would have been so much better off had Rodney been able to achieve the contentment that always seemed to elude him. That does not mean for one second that I condoned his bad behavior. But Rodney was given chances that others in his position never had, yet he could not muster the intestinal fortitude to turn his life around for whatever reason. I consider that tragic…

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