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King case led to major LAPD reforms

Charter Amendment F limited chiefs to two five-year terms and ended their civil-service status. It also provided for civilian review of misconduct.

June 17, 2012|By Paul Pringle and Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times
  • George Holliday shot a video of police beating Rodney King on March 31, 1991, in Lake View Terrace.
George Holliday shot a video of police beating Rodney King on March 31, 1991,… (George Holliday )

Daryl F. Gates was in his 13th year as head of the Los Angeles Police Department when four of his officers pummeled Rodney King on a darkened roadside in Lake View Terrace.

If the reforms later inspired by the King episode had been in place at that time, Gates would have been in his third year of retirement.

Among the sweeping changes brought to the Los Angeles Police Department because of the 1991 King beating was a voter-approved law limiting police chiefs to two five-year terms.

PHOTOS: Rodney King | 1965- 2012

Charter Amendment F, adopted about a month after the riots that were sparked by the acquittals of the four officers in the King case, ended civil service status for chiefs. Before that, chiefs had been appointed by the Police Commission and essentially were allowed to serve indefinitely barring formal findings of serious wrongdoing.

The measure empowered the mayor to select a chief with the City Council's consent and provided for civilian review of police misconduct.

The amendment grew out of the recommendations of a special commission led by Warren Christopher, who later became U.S. secretary of State. The commission plumbed what critics said was a racist and brutal LAPD subculture that led to the assault on King, a black drunk-driving suspect. The panel also laid the groundwork for a 1995 law that created an inspector general's office to handle complaints against officers.

VIDEOS: Rodney King and the L.A. riots

Local civil rights attorney Connie Rice said Sunday that Charter Amendment F pushed the department "down the road to reform, because the chief was no longer an imperial political figure but subject to civilian rule and the rule of law.

"Charter Amendment F broke the bulwarks against outside control," she said.

As it turned out, Gates was attending a Brentwood fundraiser for opponents of the amendment when the 1992 riots erupted. He faced a chorus of blame for the LAPD's slow response to the violence and, after a battle of wills with much of the city's political establishment, stepped down about two months later.

The amendment proved to be no cure-all; the LAPD would be tarnished again by rogue officers and the superiors who failed to manage them, particularly during the Rampart scandal that unfolded in the late 1990s.

FULL COVERAGE: L.A. riots, 20 years later

But the King beating clearly set in motion a generation-long transformation of the LAPD that shapes today's far more accountable, respected and diverse department. Since 1992, the proportion of non-white LAPD officers has grown from 41% to 64%, according to department figures.

With Gates' departure, the city appointed its first black police chief, Willie L. Williams. He was succeeded by another African American, Bernard C. Parks, now a city councilman.

Parks, who was ousted from the chief's job in 2002 after clashing with then-Mayor James K. Hahn, hasn't embraced every part of the King legacy. He said Sunday that the charter amendment has allowed elected officials, the LAPD's labor union and other interest groups to "politicize" the selection of chief, making it more of a beauty contest among candidates than a search for the most qualified person.

But Parks said the post-King strengthening of the civilian role in the LAPD's disciplinary process helped "change the attitudes of officers" who had once believed the worst of their actions could go unpunished.

PHOTOS: Notable deaths of 2012

paul.pringle@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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