Can we all get along?

Rodney King’s death brings public attention to his life and to the issue of police brutality. Rodney King did not seek the public spotlight, it was forced on him. Twenty-one years ago a man testing his new video camera, George Holliday, videotaped four Los Angeles police officers beating King. After viewing the video, many people throughout the country realized that police brutality was real. It allowed these people to see the police violence that African Americans in South Central L.A. saw regularly.

In 1981, when I started representing people who were injured by police officers, I encountered people who didn’t believe police misconduct was a problem. Since it was illegal, they felt police officers did not beat, kick, or otherwise use excessive force. Many judges, jurors, and even insurance adjusters thought police brutality didn’t exist. If it happened, they incorrectly assumed the victim of police misconduct must have done something to deserve the abuse. The video of Rodney King being beaten changed those attitudes for many people in the United States.

Not everyone got the message. Three white police officers involved in the King beating were found not guilty of criminal conduct in California state court, and the all-white jury could not reach a verdict on the third officer. Frustrated at the unjust verdict, L.A. broke out in riots. Abusive police officers were a fact of life for black residents of L.A. and other cities. They, along with much of the country, could not believe that the jury would not convict police officers when they had video of the beating. Rodney King did not want riots as a reaction to the unjust verdict. Speaking from the heart he asked, “Can we all get along?”

Two decades after Rodney King was beaten, everyone with a cell phone has a portable camera. Police officers who abuse their authority can be—and regularly are—caught on video. Our firm’s recent victory in the Glik case leaves no doubt that the First Amendment protects the right to record video and sound of police officers performing their duties in public. Widespread exercise of this right should deter abuse by police officers.

Most people want to get along with the police. To do their job, police officers need to respect the rights of civilians. Officers who show respect will get respect. Officers who demand respect while demeaning civilians may be feared, but they will not be respected. Police agencies need to hold police officers accountable by disciplining those officers who use unnecessary and excessive force. The public needs to see that police officers are not above the law they are sworn to enforce.

Rodney King was a fallible human being; he struggled with addiction throughout his life. He did not seek attention but he became a national figure. He will be remembered for his famous question. With mutual respect and openness from the police, we can all get along.

By Attorney Howard Friedman

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