Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD

Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD

Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD

Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD


In the spring of 1992 five days of rioting laid waste to South Central Los Angeles, took scores of lives, cost the city more than $900 million in property damages, and captured the attention of horrified people worldwide. Lou Cannon combines extensive research with interviews from hundreds of survivors, offering the only definitive story behind what happened and why.

Official Negligence takes a hard look at the circumstances leading up to the riots. Cannon reveals how the videotape of the brutal beating of Rodney King had been sensationally edited by a local TV station, how political leaders required LAPD officers to carry metal batons despite evidence linking them to the rising toll of serious injury in the community, and how poorly prepared the city was for the violence that erupted.


Two stark and brutal videotapes symbolize the Rodney King beating and the deadly riots that broke out in South Central Los Angeles in the spring of 1992. The first videotape, taken on March 3, 1991, by an amateur cameraman who had been awakened after midnight by sirens and the noise from a police helicopter, is of the King incident. It shows uniformed officers swarming around a large man who writhes on the ground and attempts to rise, but is clubbed and kicked into submission while other policemen watch with folded arms. The second video, shot from a news helicopter hovering over the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues during the riots a year later, shows the driver of a cement truck, Reginald Denny, being dragged from his cab by neighborhood toughs, then kicked and smashed in the head with a brick until he lies near death while one of his assailants does a jig.

Because King is black and the police officers are white and Denny is white and his attackers are black, these two videotapes convey a powerful message of racism and brutality. The symbolism was reinforced by several trials in which the videotapes were used as evidence. In April 1992, in suburban Simi Valley, a jury with no black members exonerated three of the police officers of using excessive force against King and acquitted another officer of all but one charge. The Simi Valley verdicts triggered the riots, in which fifty-four people died, more than two thousand were injured, and more than eight hundred buildings burned. Then, in 1993, in a second trial, a federal jury with two black members convicted two of the police officers and acquitted two others of violating King's civil rights. Later that year a state jury on which there were four blacks, four Latinos, two Asians, and two whites acquitted Reginald Denny's black assailants of attempted murder and other charges and found the principal defendant guilty of a lesser felony.

I covered the trials of the officers and the riots for The Washington Post. Along with most journalists and the public, I at first assumed that the videotape of the King beating would assure conviction of the police defendants. I didn't know that the tape shown repeatedly on television was a partial . . .

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