Twenty-five Years After Rodney King: Has There Been Progress?

Professor David Sklansky Endorses Federal Prison Sentencing Reform

David Alan Sklansky, the Stanley Morrison Professor of Law and Faculty Co-Director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center at Stanford Law School, has written extensively about criminal procedure and policing.  He co-authored a new study of the use of big data to combat police discrimination, and he has a separate forthcoming article about prosecutorial power.  He helped students in two recent policy labs produce two reports on diversity in prosecutors’ offices, Stuck in the ‘70s: The Demographics of California Prosecutors, and Diversity in Prosecutors’ Offices: Views from the Front Line.  Earlier in his career he served as a federal prosecutor and then as special counsel to the independent review panel appointed to investigate the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart Division scandal.

In this Q&A, Professor Sklansky discusses policing in the United States and progress that has been made in the twenty-five years since Rodney King’s encounter with Los Angeles police was captured on video, spurring protests against police use of force and, following the acquittal of four police officers charged with beating King, widespread riots in L.A. Two of the officers were subsequently convicted in a federal trial of violating King’s civil rights.

It has been twenty-five years since Rodney King was beaten by four Los Angeles police officers.  How has policing of minority communities changed since then?

There’s been so much awful news recently about the police—the shootings of unarmed Black men by the police, and the horrific murder of police officers in Dallas and then in Baton Rouge—that it can be hard to remember that in most respects American policing today is in a much better place than it was twenty-five years ago.   The police are better trained, more diverse, and less violent.  They have stronger ties to their local communities.  Police shootings are down, and police officers themselves are safer.  Communities are safer, too, including in minority neighborhoods—and part of the decline in crime is due to better policing.

Did the Los Angeles Police Department reform itself after the King case?

Yes, but it took a while.  There’s a broad consensus that the LAPD is a much better organization today and has far better relations with minority communities.  But much of this change didn’t occur until the Department agreed to federal oversight in 2000, nearly a decade after the beating of Rodney King.

How much do we know about the racial composition of police forces? Are they representative of the populations they serve?  And does that matter?

We know a lot about the racial composition of police forces, because the federal government has been collecting and disseminating these statistics for decades.  And what the numbers show is that police departments have made tremendous progress diversifying, but the progress has been incomplete and uneven.   In many large cities, the police force is now majority minority, but other departments—especially smaller ones—are still dramatically unrepresentative of the populations they serve.

And, yes, diversity matters.  It’s not necessarily that minority officers, individually, differ from white officers.  The evidence on that is mixed.  What’s clearer is that departments that diversify—along racial lines, along gender lines, and along lines of ethnicity and sexual orientation—become more vibrant organizations, less insular and less resistant to change.  And a diverse workforce helps a police department build bridges to diverse communities—although it certainly doesn’t guarantee those bridges will be built.

So then why is there such a widespread sense that policing is in crisis?

A lot of it is cellphones and social media.  The beating of Rodney King became a cause célèbre—spurring a pioneering reform commission headed by Warren Christopher, and eventually resulting in the reforms the LAPD adopted in the early 2000s—only because someone who lived in a nearby apartment happened to record it from his balcony on a camcorder.  Since then citizen videos of the police have become much more common because we’re all carrying video cameras with us all the time on our phones.  The Black Lives Matter movement used those videos, and the new platforms of social media, to bring attention to an aspect of American policing that hasn’t improved nearly as much as it needs to:  the frequency of fatal shootings by the police, particularly of young men of color.

That’s a real issue, not a manufactured one.  And it’s just one way in which progress remains to be made in American law enforcement.  Policing is incredibly decentralized in the United States.  There are 18,000 police departments across the country, and three-quarters of them have fewer than 25 officers.  So it’s not surprising that progress has been uneven.  There are lots of departments that still have to catch up with the community policing reforms that many other departments adopted in the 1980s and 1990s.  And even some of the larger departments that did much to pioneer community policing—departments like the one in Chicago—obviously continue to have many problems themselves.

Some of this is because the most important reform agendas—the turn toward community policing, and the diversification of police workforces—lost some steam over the last decade and a half.  Because of budgetary pressures and concerns about terrorism, many politicians and police executives began to think, wrongly, that community policing was a luxury they couldn’t afford.  Meanwhile the legal climate has grown much more hostile to affirmative action, as a result the diversification of police forces has slowed.

And one more thing:  Not all of the developments in policing over the past twenty-five years have been positive.  Many departments went overboard in relying on aggressive stop-and-frisk programs, and in deploying military tactics and military machinery.  Minority communities bore the brunt of these approaches, and they often took a heavy toll on the relations between those communities and the police—the relations that community policing relied on and tried to strengthen.

There’s a widespread perception that the criminal justice system fails to hold police officers responsible for the improper use of deadly force.  Is that accurate?

Most wrongful uses of force by the police probably aren’t criminal; they reflect bad training and tactics, not criminal intent.  Still, it’s important that police officers be held accountable for what they do, and that will include, in some cases, criminal accountability.  Criminal prosecutions of police officers are difficult.  Even when there is criminal intent, it can be very hard to prove because policing is messy, complicated, and often dangerous.  All four of the officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted in a state criminal trial, remember, and two of them were acquitted in the subsequent federal trial.

That said, it can be important to bring a criminal case even when securing a conviction will be difficult.  And legitimate questions can be raised about whether elected district attorneys, who work closely with the police, should be supervising the investigation and prosecution of officers suspected of the criminal misuse of deadly force.  Particularly when that process is wrapped in the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, and particularly when it results in a decision not to file criminal charges, it can be hard for the public to trust that justice is being dispensed in an evenhanded way.

That’s one of the reasons that the Stanford Criminal Justice Center has focused so much of its attention over the last year and a half on prosecutors—who they are, and how they operate.  We know a lot less about prosecutors than we know about the police, and the SCJC is trying to change that.

Aside from criminal prosecutions, what can be done to improve the relationship between police departments and minority communities?

We need a renewed commitment to community policing—to the police working hand-in-hand with the community, rather than as something separate and apart from the community.  We should renew our commitment, as well, to diversifying police departments. We need better data about police shootings—and about more routine police activities, like traffic stops and pedestrian stops.  We could use national standards for the proper use of force, and we need to revisit, in particular, the circumstances under which the police fire on suspects who do not appear to have guns. More ambitiously, we need a new relationship with rank-and-file officers and the organizations that represent them.  They should be partners in reform, not just the objects of reform.