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Rodney King riots won't happen again, say police

Rodney King retrospective: Twenty years later, a look back at the Rodney King beating, the riots that followed, and how far the LAPD think they have come.

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In the wake of the beating, the blue-ribbon Christopher Commission reviewed the LAPD and criticized the department for a culture that it said permitted police abuse. The department later created a civilian watchdog position.

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A federal consent decree was imposed in 2001 when the federal government threatened to sue the city over what it claimed was a pattern of police abuse dating back decades.

The controversy and the decree sparked sweeping reforms that have made the department a more effective and respected force, Beck said. Among other things, he said the LAPD is under oversight of the civilian Police Commission and the police chief no longer has civil service protection and a lifetime sinecure but serves at the discretion of the city government, making his position more responsive.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas told The Associated Press it is difficult to predict what might happen in terms of civic unrest.

Still, "the LAPD is a vastly improved police organization as a result of 20 years of reform culminating in a consent decree," he said.

Ridley-Thomas also credited the so-called "Day of Dialogue" community meetings between LAPD officials, officers and residents initiated after the O.J. Simpson verdicts in the mid-1990s.

The meetings are a "very useful civic intervention to help people talk about their differences, talk with police officers, talk with command staff," Ridley-Thomas said.

More interventions of that sort need to continue to avoid deterioration of relations that could lead to civil unrest,' he said.

Beck said the city's dropping crime rate has played a role in attitudes toward the Police Department.

Twenty years ago, the crime level was four times what it is today, and there were far fewer officers, Beck said.

"Often it was perceived as an uncaring, occupational force that merely responded from incident to incident," the chief said.

Nowadays, police concentrate more on the root causes of crime and have closer ties to citizens in communities where they were largely distrusted, Beck said.

"The Police Department doesn't have to be a catalyst for racial animosity," he said. "The Police Department, through the sponsoring of public events, through its work in the community ... has become the glue, the fabric that helps to hold diverse communities together rather than the force that splits them apart."

A recent Harvard University survey found that police got an 83 percent approval rating across the city, Beck said.

"I think you have a complete change in the way that the Police Department is viewed and the way that it serves this city," he said.

Beck said the LAPD has overhauled the way it investigates public complaints and officer use-of-force incidents, and has become more transparent in its actions.

"I have no problem admitting to mistakes," the chief said.

The South Bureau, covering a fourth of the city, now has video cameras in its patrol cars, and Beck has requested outfitting Central Division cars next year. If the budget request is approved, police cruisers in about half the city would have the cameras.

"We do not hide behind our actions, we're proud of our actions," the chief said. "We want people to see how difficult a job policing is and how dangerous it is."

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