LAPD Sgt. Stacey Koon 25 years ago prevented CHP Officer Melanie Singer from shooting and killing an African American driver known as Rodney King. Koon served 30 months in prison for saving King’s life; his words and actions stand in marked contrast with today’s rampant police shootings.
By Steve Silkin
Every time I see video of another police officer shooting and killing someone – justified or not, per policy or not – I think of former LAPD Sgt. Stacey Koon.
That’s because early on March 3, 1991 – that’s a generation ago this week, as a quarter-century has passed since that night in Lake View Terrace – “Rodney” Glen King led the California Highway Patrol on a chase that ended when King stopped his car and got out. CHP Officer Melanie Singer approached him with her gun drawn and aimed.
“Put the gun away, put the gun away,” Koon said, shouting at her because, as he testified at his state trial in Simi Valley the next year, he saw that King could be taken into custody without killing him.
And that’s when everything all went to hell.
I was the news editor of the Simi Valley Enterprise when the trial took place at the East County Courthouse in late winter and early spring of 1992. I attended jury selection for a short time, and watched the televised proceedings of the trial each day on deadline so that we could give the latest news with the highest degree of accuracy to our afternoon readers. After many years of reading about what happened that night and the consequences of the beating, this is my understanding of the night in question, the Ventura County trial – political show trail No. 1 – and the rioting, and finally the federal case – political show trial No. 2.
One last thought by way of introduction: Unless you have read at least two books on the subject, watched tapes of the trial, or otherwise done a deep dive into the reports of the botched arrest, trial No. 1, the rioting and trial No. 2, it’s a safe bet that everything you think you know about Koon and King is wrong.
In the months following the riots, I would tell my liberal Westside and Valley friends and acquaintances – folks I’d meet at coffee houses or birthday parties – what really happened, what Koon really did, why everything got screwed up, and they would look at me as if I were a Martian brainwashed by the pro-police tendencies of Simi Valley and say:
“You really believe that, don’t you?”
I told them: “I watched the trial every day. I edited our articles on it every day. I read the other newspapers every day. I saw them all: the cops, the attorneys, the prospective jurors, and even heard them during jury selection. Yes. I really believe it. Because it’s true.”
They’d shrug and walk away. Twenty-five years have passed. I’m sure the truth is buried even deeper now.
King, in initial reports, was said to be a worker at Dodger Stadium at the time of the high speed chase, on parole for a 1989 robbery. (His description in news articles varied from “African American motorist” to “black parolee” during the course of events.) The police report alleged that he had led cars driven by the CHP and the LAPD, as well a helicopter, on a chase of 100 miles per hour in a Hyundai Excel. A very clever reporter at the Los Angeles Daily News – perhaps the owner of a Hyundai Excel – knew that these cars, unlike Corvettes or Camaros, cannot be driven at 100 miles per hour without the plastic melting, the vehicle vibrating so hard it would shake your fillings loose, or the engine tearing itself apart. (Or perhaps this information was leaked to the reporter by Chevrolet to preserve market share.) This exaggeration in the police report, which was probably the boilerplate description that cops thought it was OK to use in all cases of a chase (“speeds up to 100 mph yada yada yada”) instantly diminished the credibility of the written document – as the Daily News report reminded many people that a Hyundai Excel will only go 100 miles per hour if it is dropped out of an airplane, or shot out of the barrel of an aircraft carrier gun.
King apparently knew he was drunk, and that an arrest for driving under the influence would violate his parole, cause the loss of his job, (I see that Wikipedia now refers to him as a taxi driver, although that’s new to me) a return to jail, and other unpleasant consequences. So when two officers of the CHP tried to get him to pull over (a husband and wife, Tim and Melanie Singer; I believe that Esquire magazine failed to give them the honor of “Fun Couple of the Year” in its annual Dubious Achievements awards) King hesitated to do so. By the time he exited the freeway, several LAPD squad cars and a helicopter had joined the chase.
The helicopter shone its spotlight on King, perhaps making it difficult for him to see what was going on as he got out of the car, its propeller perhaps making it difficult to hear what the law enforcement officers were telling him. What was clear, however, in court testimony, is that Mrs. Singer approached King with her gun drawn and pointed at him. Koon repeatedly told her to put her gun away. (And it must have been in his best “command” voice – what officers are trained to use to obtain compliance – because I’ve heard Koon speak. He may look as tough as Jack Nicholson, but he has a lisp and sounds like your mild-mannered middle school math teacher.)
King did not comply with commands. So a group of officers surrounded him and – as seen on the opening seconds of the video but was not shown to audiences of millions, in contrast to the rest of the ensuing violence – he got down on his knees. But then he panicked and rushed Officer Laurence Powell, knocking him down.
You probably don’t know that Powell had failed to qualify on his baton test earlier that day. And even if you did know that, you probably don’t know why. Because I had always thought that it was because he hadn’t been hitting hard enough. It was only after 20 years of reading about the case did I learn from a book by Lou Cannon, Washington Post reporter at the time, that Powell hadn’t qualified because he did not master the “hit-the-collarbone” shot. Apparently, if a cop hits you in the clavicle with his baton, it will break that bone, causing pain so intense that you drop to the ground, where officers can then take you into custody without killing you.
Powell got up and counterattacked, but because he did not hit King’s collarbone, other officers had to join the effort. That’s the video everyone remembers. Several officers raining baton blows onto King while he’s on the ground but trying to get up, until he stops resisting and then, several officers obeying the laws of physics, specifically inertia, continuing to beat him after he stopped resisting. Koon, meanwhile, had also fired a shock device into King but it was ineffective for reasons that were never made clear. (Faulty device? Stuck in his shirt without skin contact?) And he was the ranking officer on scene. So …
Someone counted the baton blows shown on the video: 56. Meanwhile, the police report had said “several.” OK, speeds “up to 100 miles per hour” in a Hyundai Excel, “several” baton blows … and police wonder why they’re not the most popular folks in the ’hood. Could it be because they lie? Routinely?
A plumber, George Holliday, was on his balcony with his new video camera. He had filmed future Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (as the world gets more absurd, must our thinking become more adjusted to the absurd to adapt?) shooting scenes from “Terminator 2” earlier in the day. He pointed the camera and taped. Then he called the police to ask what had happened. The taxpayer who was funding the police operator’s salary at that very moment was told, in so many words, that it was none of his business. So he brought the tape to KTLA Channel 5, where the news professionals knew a hot piece of video when they saw it.
Ah, so many ifs. If Koon hadn’t stopped Mrs. Singer from shooting and killing King, there would have been no consequences – for anyone except King and his family. If Powell had been more adept at baton, the police could have taken him into custody without looking like thugs – one quick blow and down. If the police operator had told Holliday that he had filmed an arrest after a high-speed chase, he might’ve just shown the video to his friends instead of the whole world. Ah, if, if, if …
But no. Police Chief Daryl Gates and District Attorney Ira Reiner threw Koon and Powell, along with Officers Ted Briseno and trainee Timothy Wind, to the wolves of political expediency, with charges of “assault under color of authority.” (After Koon had saved King’s life. After Powell, Briseno, Wind and other officers were doing nothing more than their job: taking King into custody. And doing it without killing him. Which by today’s standards, good lord, is admirable.)
Their attorneys quickly declared: The officers will be exonerated. And it will be the tape that exonerates them.
No one believed it. Because no one knew that they hadn’t seen the whole tape. Because no one had. Because the part of the tape that showed King resisting arrest and assaulting Powell was never shown to the public.
The trial was moved to Simi Valley, where taxpayers had funded construction of a beautiful brand new courthouse so that residents of Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks and Moorpark would not have to drive to Ventura for many of their legal issues. The courthouse was 100 percent vacant. The state did not have the money to staff the site. So when the attorneys requested a change of venue, it was a logical choice. Empty building. Empty parking lot. Empty everything.
That’s when it became my problem. This all happened after the savings and loan crisis and the 1989 burst of the housing bubble. Our small newspaper was suffering, even before the Internet, before new media, before anyone had heard of Yahoo or Google or Craigslist. Our advertisers had lost customers, our readers had lost investments, defense contracting was already tightening. Our news staff had decreased by attrition from 10 to four reporters. We did not have anyone to cover the trial so we had to rely on wire reports filed two miles away to bring our readers news of an international story taking place in their home town.
We did have a young publishing intern, though, so on occasion I turned my job over to her so she could learn the editorial side of the business while I went to watch jury selection several mornings.
To say that prospective jurors were initially inclined to convict the four officers would be to greatly underestimate the hostility that was openly shown to them.
A woman of color was one of the first people questioned as the selection process began. Upon being excused because she could not sustain the obligation of a long trial, she reprimanded the officers as she was leaving the courtroom in words much like these:
“I see you sitting there chit-chatting and laughing; after what you did to that man, you shouldn’t be talking and laughing, you should be ashamed, you should hang your heads in shame.”
The officers were sitting directly in front of me. During the rest of jury selection, and as far as I could tell during the rest of the trial, they sat stone-faced and silent, like chagrined schoolboys.
It did not look well for the cops, in my view. No one had seen the first few minutes of the tape. When I was there, the members of the Ventura County jury pool did not smile and nod kindly toward the officers. (Although I have read later accounts that the prosecution said they were very concerned about the pro-police attitude of many of the jurors who were ultimately seated.) And it looked even worse after what I found to be the oddest element of the trial.
The height of absurdity came as Mrs. Singer took the stand. When she was describing what happened after Koon prevented her from shooting and killing King, she burst into tears and said that the beating was the worst thing she had ever seen in her life.
My jaw dropped, my eyes widened and I turned to my colleagues and said: “Wait, wasn’t she about to kill that guy? But she now appears traumatized by having seen him beaten?” They were busy with their own preoccupations, such as City Council coverage or the flower show or high school basketball, so no one besides me cared. Probably the same today. We’re all busy with our own preoccupations. While police are shooting and killing people on videotape routinely, seemingly without justification, sometimes within policy, sometimes not, but … hey, we’ve all got our own preoccupations. I understand.
But there was extensive media coverage of the trial. Newspapers, magazine, television. No one, nowhere, no how, in nothing I read or saw, even made the slightest notation, the slightest footnote, the slightest asterisk: But, but … he told her to put the gun away. She was going to KILL King. Now she’s CRYING about the night she watched him being beaten?
Somehow, some way, the attorneys for the officers convinced the Ventura County jurors that no, police officers do not have to go home in body bags, so they can indeed use reasonable force to detain suspects while taking them into custody. And because the jurors had seen the first few seconds of the videotape, the jurors had known that King had resisted arrest and knocked down an officer, and the jurors heard all the evidence in a nearly two-month trial and deliberated for seven days, the officers were not convicted. But the nation – and even the world – was aghast.
Filmmaker John Singleton had been shooting scenes of “Poetic Justice” with Janet Jackson and Tupac Shakur in Simi Valley. Singleton was one of the first to come to the courthouse to object to the verdict for the benefit of the cameras. (Trivia note: I only recently learned he was working as a security guard on the set of “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” a few years before, when he met Laurence “Cowboy Curtis” Fishburne, before they collaborated on “Boyz in the Hood.”) I suspect that Singleton was too busy with Tupac and Janet to have paid sufficient attention to the details of the trail before pronouncing his dissatisfaction with the verdict. African-American residents of Simi Valley also gathered at the courthouse in protest. Perhaps they had followed the trial and heard the evidence; perhaps not.
Our receptionist, a lovely and soft-spoken young woman who, to the delight of all my male colleagues, enjoyed dressing up in chic outfits each day to represent the newspaper as best she could to our walk-in customers, turned to me and said in a completely calm manner:
“I just got a call from a man who said he was coming here to kill us all.”
“You can expect more of those,” I said. “Perhaps let’s take the phone off line for the rest of the afternoon and let callers hear our out-of-office message instead.”
I was later told that City Hall, the Police Department and even local schools got similar calls all day and the next day. All from people who didn’t catch these subtle nuances:
Koon prevented Mrs. Singer from shooting and killing King. The other officers used force on King because, perhaps because he was blinded by the light of the helicopter and unable to hear officers’ commands due to the chopper noise, he had resisted arrest. But they hadn’t killed him.
I went home and watched on television as Reginald Denny was pulled from his truck in what is now called South Los Angeles and beaten savagely. The carnage seemed to be in response to the verdicts. It was only years later that I learned the violence at the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues had started earlier that day. It had begun before the verdicts were announced; it was triggered by the botched arrest of Damian Williams’ brother at a nearby house. A private investigator working for the attorney representing Damian Williams, one of the suspects in the beating of the truck driver, posted his notes describing the events of that afternoon at the intersection in question. Otherwise, history and I would never have known.
Gates had proposed a plan for police response to any rioting that might be triggered by an acquittal verdict. The City Council rejected it, accusing the chief of attributing violent tendencies to minorities. (Honni soit qui mal y pense.) The news copters didn’t have any such restraint, however, and were patrolling Los Angeles on the lookout for any protests or otherwise video-friendly fodder. When the carnage on Florence and Normandie was broadcast, no one knew it had started before the verdicts were announced and had no connection to the trial or Rodney King.
A few hours later, with television confirmation that rioting had broken out in response to the verdicts, throngs of angry people were on the street, burning and looting. In the following days, 54 people died, hundreds were injured, and an estimated billion dollars in damage was done until the National Guard restored order. (I’m thinking that the nice round number of billion probably has a margin of error of 10 percent. So give or take $100 million – and I’m taking if you’re giving!)
The riots were instantly the called the most deadly in American history; then this qualifier was added: the most deadly “peacetime” riot in American history. (You would have to know that the most deadly rioting in American history occurred during the Civil War. I only learned that years later. The deadliest wartime riot in American history, the draft riots aka the Wall Street riots, was not explained by any media at the time.) The language of advertising has so infused our consciousness that when we speak, we must say “the worst,” “the best” … Nevertheless, even that qualified claim of worst peacetime rioting was untrue. White rioters in 1921 Oklahoma, set off by an erroneous newspaper report that a white woman was raped by a black man (he either whistled at her or stepped on her foot accidentally, depending on which account you read), destroyed the entire African-American city of Greenwood. The estimated number of dead varies widely, but even the lowest number given is higher than any other; the range is from 300 to 2,000. OK, so maybe the L.A. riots were the worst that began on a Thursday in American history. (Because there has to be a superlative involved; because that’s how we have learned to tell a story and sell a story. You know, like movie records: The biggest box office take ever for a movie opening on Tuesday.)
I joined my tennis foursome at Balboa Park in the San Fernando Valley and we could taste the ashes from the fires 20 miles away. The next night, I had to drive to the airport to pick up a friend returning from abroad. I wasn’t frightened. But that’s because I took my tire iron out of my trunk and put it on my passenger seat.
Mayor Tom Bradley expressed his surprise and disappointment at the verdict. Ditto President George W. Bush. The entire world vilified the jurors, the people of Simi Valley, the people of Ventura County. The following year, Koon and Powell were convicted in the second political show trial, this time in federal court, on similar but slightly different charges in order to allow the prosecution to proceed despite the constitutional defense against double jeopardy, which it turns out isn’t really forbidden by the constitution if the authorities (cough-our masters-cough) decide they don’t want it to be. They served their time, King went on to live a troubled life, drowning after a wave of publicity over the 20th anniversary of what some call riots and some call an uprising.
End of story?
Hardly. Two years ago, two police officers in Cleveland responded to a call about a man with a gun in a park; one of the cops immediately shot and killed a 12-year-old boy playing with a toy. Koon wasn’t there to say “Put the gun away, put the gun away.” The cops didn’t even order the boy to drop his weapon. The video shows them racing their car onto the curb, getting out of the car and the officer shooting him instantly. Maybe there’s more to the video than that, but it sure looks like the officers didn’t even try not to kill the boy. But unlike Koon, the officer who pulled the trigger wasn’t brought to trial, so we may never know.
The Los Angeles Times recently studied 2,000 police shootings that took place during the past 10 years in Southern California. Shootings. Not beatings. Only one was found to be prosecutable, despite the clear implication that many of them were questionable, some of those highly questionable and many led to payments of millions of dollars in civil settlements. Stacey Koon’s philosophy was obviously to “put the gun away” and take people into custody without killing them when possible. He was prosecuted twice and sent to prison. It makes me wonder.
If you were a cop, would you shoot to kill someone because you’re unlikely to suffer any consequences, whereas if you save a life by not shooting someone, but beating them instead, you – like Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell – might be sent to prison?
“Can’t we all get along?” King famously asked. I ask a slightly different question. “Can’t we get anything right?”
Not King’s name, anyway. He was Glen King. He went by his middle name. Sure, you may say, Rodney Glen King was his official government name. But nobody ever called him Rodney. Everybody called him Glen. I hope that made it easier for him to disassociate himself from what happened that night and after. I don’t think he ever thanked Koon for saving his life. (Although one version of the story states that he told Koon “I love you” when he was taken to the hospital. Maybe that’s close enough. Or maybe he was just drunk. Or punch drunk. Or a combination of the two.)
Here’s to you, Glen, and my apologies for the burden that was placed upon you by my fellow Angelenos and humans on Earth. There was rioting in Atlanta. There was rioting in Canada. I read one report that there was rioting in Africa, but I could never confirm it.
But above all, here’s to you, Stacey. Thank you for saving Glen’s life. That was me sitting behind you during jury selection, when that woman told you to hang your head in shame, instead of thanking you for saving Glen’s life. If no one has ever said thanks, I’d like to take this opportunity, 25 years later: Thank you for saving his life.
Steve Silkin, editor of Conquistador Publications, was news editor at the Simi Valley Enterprise at the time of the first trial in 1992. He once escaped arrest for trespassing in a skyscraper under construction by fleeing from the LAPD on his bicycle.