LOS ANGELES – Twenty years after the videotaped Rodney King beating exposed racial wounds and ignited passions that eventually sparked a devastating riot, Police Chief Charlie Beck said Thursday he's confident a similar police beating couldn't happen again.
The Los Angeles Police Department has made sweeping reforms in its use of force and handling of complaints, is under more civilian oversight, and community-based policing has eased tensions in crime-plagued communities, Beck said.
In addition, the ubiquitous cell phone means officers are aware they may be taped at any time, Beck asserted.
"Inarguably, we are a much better department," he said during a routine meeting with journalists. "I have more faith in my police officers than to believe a Rodney King incident would happen today."
King, who is black, was beaten by four white police officers following a high-speed chase into the Lakeview Terrace area on March 3, 1991. A resident, George Holliday, heard sirens and videotaped the beating from his balcony. His nine-minute footage aired on local television and eventually found its way around the world.
A year later, the four officers were acquitted in a criminal trial, triggering outrage in some black communities that erupted on April 29, 1992, into days of rioting and looting that left 55 people dead and more than $1 billion in damage.
Since then, the Police Department has made "great strides," but it still has issues, said Peter Bibring, who has handled police issues as a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
He mentioned a 2007 immigration-rights rally in MacArthur Park where officers used batons to hit demonstrators and fired rubber bullets into a crowd, injuring dozens of people. Then-Police Chief William Bratton acknowledged the incident was improperly handled.
Bibring said an ACLU report in 2008, based on LAPD data from 2003 and 2004, showed that blacks and Hispanics were disproportionally more likely to be stopped and searched by police.
While the LAPD has far better relationships with the community than during the Rodney King era, concerns about racial profiling and police use of force persist among people of color, Bibring said.
"There are still real issues of trust in some sectors of the community," he said. "There's still work to be done."
King settled a lawsuit against the city for $3.8 million but struggled with drug and alcohol problems and had several arrests in later years. The Associated Press was unable to find a telephone number to contact King, who lives in the San Bernardino County town of Rialto.
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.
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."