(NewsNation) — Thirty years ago, a federal jury convicted LAPD officers Laurence Powell and Stacey Koon of violating the rights of Rodney King, who they brutally assaulted. The federal verdict was issued around a year after a local jury acquitted the officers, which set off almost a week of mass protests, and eventually riots, that rocked the city of Los Angeles.
As one of the highest-profile incidents of police brutality in American history, the Rodney King incident set off a national conversation about police reform. In the decades since, public officials and police agencies have worked on reforms intended to reduce illegal or unnecessary violence by officers.
Have those reforms been successful, or has policing failed to change in the following decades? NewsNation spoke to two criminologists who track trends in policing and offered countervailing views on the question.
‘Nothing has changed’
Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson has spent years researching police accountability issues.
He argued that it’s difficult to say that policing has improved since the days of the Rodney King beating.
“In terms of how routine this is … police chiefs would like us to believe that these are situations of a few bad apples and that as soon as we get rid of the bad apples, there’s nothing to see here, move along, everything’s fine, policing is fine,” he said. “But we know that that’s just not the case, that these problems are systemic in many places around the country.”
Stinson said that it can be difficult to measure incidents of unlawful police violence because of how opaque policing can be.
He pointed to police body cameras as one innovation that hasn’t helped as much as people might assume it would, noting that they’re typically only reviewed when there’s a citizen complaint or someone is injured or killed.
“We’re still not capturing the depth and the breadth of the problem,” he said.
Stinson said that in 98% of police shooting cases, the officers involved don’t face homicide charges. While he said he believes the majority of these cases are justified uses of force, he argued that we often lack the knowledge to make a proper determination.
“It’s hard to say, but I would venture to speculate that in fact some of those cases where the officers were cleared or not prosecuted, that in fact the officers were not legally justified in using deadly force but there just isn’t the evidence to make a criminal case out,” he said.
Stinson also collects and shares data on officers arrested for all crimes based on media reports. The data he’s collected since 2005 has shown a consistent trend, suggesting that the amount of police abuse has stayed constant over time and hasn’t declined alongside reforms.
All of this makes Stinson pessimistic.
“Quite honestly, nothing has changed. We’re seeing that these incidents are not one-off, they’re not rare, they happen with some regularity,” he said.
‘I think accountability as a whole has improved’
University of Nebraska Omaha criminologist Justin Nix is more optimistic.
“I think accountability as a whole has improved. I think the collective attention has been more sustained. Up until Rodney King, police misconduct and police killings were kind of viewed as like isolated incidents … right now we think of it more as a national issue,” Nix said.
He pointed to the increasing use of consent decrees since the 1990s — where the federal government steps in and conducts oversight over a police department. Almost two dozen of these court-enforced plans of action are in place.
Recently, Louisville agreed to enter a consent decree with the federal government after a Department of Justice investigation found a pattern of rights violations. In part, it directed the department to improve its use-of-force training and make it easier for citizens to file a complaint.
Additionally, Nix has been collecting data on fatal police shootings. Given that the federal government lacks comprehensive collection of this data, he used a combination of press reports and data directly from agencies to track shootings in 12 major cities for years when data was available.
For years, police departments have been revamping their training and guidelines on the use of force. These reforms, when combined with fewer crimes that police are responding to, maybe reduce fatal uses of force.
What Nix found is that the number of fatal police shootings has overall been declining in most of these regions. He shared some of that data with NewsNation.
“I’m cautious because the data are so incomplete back then, but again everything I’ve seen tells me that it would be a stretch to say that the police are shooting at the same rate — let alone higher rates — today than they were 30, 40, 50 years ago,” Nix said.
Nix also pointed to signs that police culture has changed since the days of the Rodney King beating. He pointed to the plethora of police departments that spoke out after the George Floyd video emerged.
“Police departments around the country were quick to speak out and say no that has no place in our profession, right? That’s a clear abuse of our authority,” Nix said.
It’s a change even from more recent cases like the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Nix said the sentiment among law enforcement at that time was, “Well, let’s wait for the investigation … I’m not going to run to judgment until I see more.”