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Published: Thursday, 6/21/2012

GUEST EDITORIAL

Rodney King's legacy

Rodney King Rodney King
AP Enlarge

Rodney King has died, 21 years after a brutal assault by Los Angeles police officers made him a household name.

On March 3, 1991, King, then 25, was speeding on Interstate 210 at more than 100 miles per hour. Just released from a two-year sentence for robbery, he had been drinking and was aware that he would be found in violation of his parole if stopped. When he did finally pull over after an eight-mile police chase, he acted aggressively toward the officers.

What happened next sent shock waves through the country. Recorded by a bystander on home video, officers kicked Mr. King and bludgeoned him with metal batons more than 50 times.

After the images aired worldwide -- and especially after riots erupted in Los Angeles following the acquittal of several of the officers -- King became a reminder of police brutality and of the persistence of institutionalized racism. Two decades later, how much has changed?

Some good came of King's suffering. The Los Angeles Police Department -- mostly under the direction of chief William Bratton -- actively pursued a model of community policing that focused on regaining the trust of minority communities that were wary of racial profiling and needless reliance on force. Community policing has been largely successful in Los Angeles and has since been used in other cities.

The home video, too, was a reminder to police everywhere of an emerging culture of public accountability and the demands it makes of officers.

But many of the fears and suspicions that fueled the riots of 1992 understandably persist. In February, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, police initially released George Zimmerman without charge; many saw race as the primary explanation of that decision.

In New York City, police stop-and-frisk practices disproportionately target minorities. Statistics from the New York Civil Liberties Union show that in the past decade, of the roughly 700,000 people stopped each year, almost 90 percent are black or Latino. Figures such as these have driven thousands of people to protest in public against police authority, as in New York last weekend.

This year, King told the Los Angeles Times he was written into a drama he wanted no part of: "I never went to school to be 'Rodney King.' " There's still work to do to ensure that he didn't play the role for naught.

-- Washington Post



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