Los Angeles riots: 20 years later, has LAPD reformed?
The view that the Los Angeles Police Department was corrupt and abusive fueled the Rodney King riots. Twenty years later, however, the LAPD has won over some of its harshest critics.
Twenty years after a video of officers kicking and clubbing motorist Rodney King made the Los Angeles Police Department the poster child for police abuse, residents and community activists say the department has turned a corner.Skip to next paragraph
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A succession of police chiefs – most notably William Bratton – have made reform a top priority. Eight years of federal oversight helped clean up the department. And the changing demographics of the LAPD – 37 percent white, compared with 59 percent in 1992 – has changed the character of the force, many say.
There are signs of slippage, some say, such as a reluctance to reprimand officers who were found by a commission to have killed or wounded people unjustifiably. But on a 20th anniversary bus tour of the riot areas Tuesday – organized by Operation Hope, which was formed in the wake of the riots to expand economic opportunity in underserved communities – the notes were universally positive.
“Don’t you love the police when they’re on your side?” said Eric Clay, HOPE’s vice president for community lending, going for a laugh as tour guide on one bus, nodding out the window at the police escort.
The Los Angeles Times reports that 70 percent of Los Angeles residents now say they approve of the police department, and at one stop on the bus tour, the Korean owner of a small convenience store offers words of praise.
“Twenty years ago, when the police showed up, everyone got more tense. Now you feel they’re here to help," he says. "That’s a big change.”
Across the street, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa speaks to an assembly of elementary school students gathered at the Quincy Jones Elementary School, built in the heart of South Los Angeles in the wake of the riots. Noting the hiring of more women and Latino officers, he says, “because of the attention and outcry of this city, we’ve been able to make hosts of reforms.”
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable and a longtime critic of the LAPD, says the department has made big strides. Several blue-ribbon commissions have helped, as has community policing, in which cops on the beat spend time getting to know residents rather than just speeding through neighborhoods in their squad cars. Federal oversight from 2001 to 2009 also meant comprehensive audits.