Introduction: The Rodney King Incident
On March 3, 1991, members of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) pursued Rodney King shortly after midnight after he was clocked driving at more than one hundred miles per hour according to officer reports (Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department [Independent Commission] 1991). During the pursuit, officers assumed that King was under the influence of PCP due to his sporadic, reckless driving. However, King was later found to only be under the influence of marijuana (Independent Commission 1991). In total, there were more than eleven squad cars, as well as one police helicopter that heard the announcement of the pursuit (known as a code 4) and proceeded to join in on the chase of King and the two passengers who accompanied him in the car (Independent Commission 1991). The officers eventually ended the pursuit with King and, upon forcefully removing him from his vehicle, proceeded to hit him with more than fifty strikes of a baton. The strikes were in response to the officers’ belief that King was resisting arrest, but whether that justified fifty swipes of a baton is quite subjective.
The police report filed on the incident mentioned the aggressive nature of King resisting arrest in order to justify the excessive force that was implemented. However, the accuracy of this report received considerable attention because Holliday, a citizen who witnessed the event, videotaped the incident from a distance (Independent Commission 1991). Not only did this tape provide visible proof of the beating, but it also captured some derogatory and unnecessary racist remarks made by one of the arresting officers: ”Nigger, hands behind your back” (Independent Commission 1991). Holliday and King’s brother immediately filed complaints to the department, but both were ignored. At that point, it appeared as though the LAPD would take no further action, and the department was going to let this overly excessive display of force go unnoticed. However, the videotape was released to the public, which allowed the entire nation to see the event and form their own judgments, and the Christopher Commission was created in response to investigate the department and determine how this act could take place.
The Christopher Commission
After viewing the videotapes and thoroughly analyzing the LAPD’s policies and procedures in the time period leading up to the King incident, the Christopher Commission identified numerous issues within the LAPD (Independent Commission 1991). First, the presence of a sergeant who did not attempt to stop the onslaught led the commission to question the ability of senior officers and upper management to control and discipline their subordinate officers. The commission concluded that there was no professional model for management to follow in supervising, which led to flawed recruiting, training, and promotional processes, causing several officers with histories of use of excessive force to be promoted to high ranks (Independent Commission 1991). It also discovered that unqualified candidates were being promoted to high-ranking positions. For example, many of the field training officers believed that they had been promoted to the position much too quickly or without the training to properly evaluate possible candidates (Independent Commission 1991).
Additionally, the obscene transmissions over the police computer systems also raised concerns about the LAPD’s racially biased policies and attitudes toward blacks and other minorities (Independent Commission 1991). The commission concluded that the LAPD failed as an organization because it was not concerned with serving everyone in the community in a humane and civil manner, and failed to deal with the overwhelmingly strong presence of racism, sexism, and other types of biases that had developed over the years within its department. Many officers who were interviewed by the commission indicated that they were instructed each day at roll call to use extreme caution when dealing with minority communities because they usually were more likely to be aggressive and carry guns, unlike people in white neighborhoods.
Furthermore, the commission uncovered an overwhelming number of complaints by residents of Los Angeles concerning the LAPD’s inability to successfully and effectively handle complaints made about officers who used excessive force (Independent Commission 1991). For example, the commission discovered the manner in which police reports and citizen complaints were handled to be complicated and unreliable with the majority of complaints never being filed, and reports being totally inaccurate. The commission asserted that this was due in part to the LAPD’s Internal Affairs division’s incompetence because it lacked valuable resources. For example, of eighty-three civil litigations examined from 1987 to 1991, only 29% resulted in a sustained complaint against an officer.
The Christopher Commission also found the use of excessive force to be the central problem associated with every pitfall within the department. Nearly 25% of all complaints filed by citizens were for cases involving an excessive amount of force (Independent Commission 1991). After examining these cases of excessive force, the commission concluded that the department’s policy on the use of force allows officers to use whatever force necessary in order to prevent bodily harm to themselves, which allows room for discretion in determining a reasonable situation to apply force. Additionally, the Christopher Commission also places the blame on the officers for their abuse of the California policy and guidelines on the proper situations to use excessive force, which also gives officers too much discretion when deciding the level of force necessary.
Finally, after examining almost every aspect of the LAPD, the commission expressed the department’s desperate need for a system in which accountability is clearly stated, as well as a flowing process in which the recommendations and suitable punishments stemming from the complaints of excessive force can be administered properly (Independent Commission 1991). The commission describes a successful professional model of policing as a department that is well trained, disciplined, and humane, and one that is prepared to adapt to situations that vary in terms of the amount of necessary force required.
In 1996, a follow-up commission was created to assess the implementation of the suggestions made by the Christopher Commission, and it found that many of the same problems still existed within the LAPD (Bobb 1996). Many people questioned whether the department was amenable to change or doomed to continue its unlawful practices. Despite the abundance of problems and inefficiencies documented by both commissions that investigated the LAPD, the department continues its operation and receives its share of funding from the city of Los Angeles.
Fayol’s (1949) elements of an organization serve as guidelines that organizations should follow in order to be efficient and effective. Organizations should clearly define accountability and responsibility for tasks throughout the chain of command. Without clearly defined tasks, employees tend to adopt status consciousness and claim that things are not their problems (Fayol 1949). Additionally, it is essential that communication be open up and down the scalar chain in order to ensure that accidents do not become normalized. Proper training and task specialization is the best way to prevent accidents from becoming normalized, but the LAPD failed to properly train its officers. Finally, it is essential for management to take proper disciplinary action against its officers when they do adopt deviant means of policing. The LAPD’s inability to properly manage these aspects of the department enabled an incident like the Rodney King beating to occur.
After assessing all of the issues within the LAPD, the Christopher Commission found the organization to be inefficient and flawed. Sergeants did not closely supervise their subordinate officers, and they failed to take disciplinary action against them despite the numerous citizen complaints (Independent Commission 1991). The department’s division for handling and filing complaints was not ”customer friendly,” and most people interviewed by the commission agreed on the difficulty of officially filing a claim within the department. The department’s training and recruitment programs had deteriorated over the years because it lacked the necessary resources to properly evaluate officers for any psychological deficiencies. Promotions were given to undeserving officers who had an extended history of complaints (Independent Commission 1991). The burden caused by each of these departmental downfalls is shared by every member of the organization.
According to Charles (2000), no organization is completely free or resistant to encountering risk factors that could potentially lead to a crisis. Problems are bound to occur, but successful organizations are able to work through them because they have managers who work diligently to find the root of the risk (Charles 2000). Every officer on the chain of command, including the LAPD chief of police, shared in the responsibility for the department’s failures outlined by the Christopher Commission. The Rodney King beating was the result of the normalization of deviance at the workplace, which Hall (2003) refers to as the inability of organizations to make note or take action of problems in their infrastructure over a long period of time. The King beating was not an accident or a coincidence, for the department continued to operate according to flawed policies and procedures for a number of years with no attempts to amend them. The overall inability of the LAPD to follow correct policies and the poor supervision and administration of sergeants and other members of management allowed for a crisis like the King incident to occur.