Police officers attempt to pull over Rodney King, but he engages them in a high-speed chase instead. When he finally comes to a stop, he is asked to exit the car. Four officers beat him for over a minute, using tasers and batons.
On the night of March 3, 1991, 41-year-old Stacey Koon was one of five Los Angeles Police Department officers who tried to subdue motorist Rodney King after King had led officers on a high-speed car chase.
When King stepped out of his car—his two passengers had already been led to patrol cars—he was brutally beaten by the officers. Koon took part by zapping King with a taser at least twice. The shocking incident turned into a national news story when media outlets aired an 81-second tape of the beating, filmed by a nearby resident, that showed the police delivering 56 baton blows and six kicks. King suffered a skull fracture as well as brain and kidney damage.
During a 1992 trial in Los Angeles, Koon testified that King was the aggressor and the use of force to take him down was justified. On April 29, after seven days of jury deliberations, Koon and his fellow officers were acquitted on charges of using excessive force. That same day, riots erupted and claimed the lives of 53 people.
Here are portions of Koon’s testimony at his 1992 trial.
Stacey Koon: Well, the first thing that I saw was that I estimated [Rodney King] to be about six-two and about 250 pounds if he had been fully standing up, and the other thing I noticed about him is that he was very buffed out, he was very muscular.
Darryl Mounger (Koon’s defense attorney): And you said that you observed him to be buffed out. Would you please describe to the jury what buffed out means to you.
Koon: Buffed out is jargon that I have come to associate with very muscular. In other words, an individual that is very pumped us as far as muscles.
Mounger: With regard to your state of mind, what were you thinking when you saw this buffed out person?
Koon: My initial response was that he was probably an ex-con.
Koon: As I looked at him I could see that he would sway, he was swaying back and forth, and he was swaying side to side … I could see from the headlights that were illuminating him that he appeared to be sweaty or wet with perspiration.
Koon: I—as I say, I had eye contact with him at this time, and I began to shout commands to him, and at that time I looked at his—as I looked into his eyes, I could see his eyes were glassy and the look that he’s giving me, he’s looking at me and it is kind of a bizarre feeling, he is looking threw [sic] me. It is a look I had seen before.
Mounger: All right. When you say that you have seen this kind of a look before, would you tell the jury what you mean by that.
Koon: It is usually people that are under the influence of a drug or sometimes alcohol. I have seen it in PCP cases also.
Mounger: And you didn’t form—did you form an opinion he was under the influence of PCP at that point?
Koon: No, not at that point.
Mounger: All right. What did you do next?
Koon: I went back to my car. In the interior on the front seat I kept my taser. I took off the sheath, the holster, so to speak, of the taser and I loaded the taser.
Mounger: All right. Why did you do that?
Koon: Because I believed that this individual was under the influence of some intoxicant. I didn’t know what it was.
Koon: My state of mind at the time was that I just had a pursuit, it was about 1 o’clock in the morning, that my experience with this type of a thing was that this individual that is willing to take a risk, if you will, in a pursuit to risk his own life, to risk the life of others. The times that I have been in pursuits at this hour in the morning have been for felony suspects. I don’t know what this individual is running from. I don’t know what he is running from, where he is running to. The pursuit ends up at the park. I don’t know if he selected that location to be at. I don’t know if the officers forced him to stop there. The park, that particular park has a bad reputation. I don’t know if he is trying to lure them into something. The officer—when I first get there and I see [King], he appears to be intoxicated. He’s not following the commands of the officers. He’s not into a prone position. And at this time all this stuff is going through my mind and [California Highway Patrol officer] Melanie Singer is walking up with this gun in her hand and to me my training, my experience has been that is absolutely wrong, you do not approach a suspect, a felony suspect, with your gun in your hand. You wait until you control him.
Mounger: Why would you not approach him with a gun?
Koon: Because one or two things is going to happen. Either she is going to end up shooting him or he’s going to end up getting the gun and there will be a tuggle over there and she will probably get shot or he will have access to the gun. And what you have to remember in this situation when I first pull up there, is that I have not only LAPD agency there, but I have the CHP and I have the school police and I have a bunch of people with guns out and there is targets all over the place, not only the officers, and at the time I am not aware of, but citizens behind us. And I am not going to subject—it is an explosive situation. You have to de-escalate this and she is causing it by her approaching with this weapon.
After King is subjected to a series of baton blows.
Koon: I’m thinking that Mr. King has been subjected to an enormous amount of pain and he’s not—it is almost as if his body is anesthetized to the pain. By that I mean he’s not giving me any indication that he feels what he’s being hit with. He’s being hit with a metal PR-24 and he’s not feeling it.
Mounger: Did you find any difficulty with your officers striking him at this point?
Koon: No, this was perfectly within the LAPD policy and procedure.
The blows continue …
Koon: I’m getting concerned, scared. I’m getting a little frightened here now because this gentleman has just been subjected to a multitude of blows with a metal PR-24 and there is no evidence that he is going to go into compliance mode.
Mounger: Could you see Mr. King’s face?
Koon: Yes, I could.
Mounger: What expression did you perceive in his face?
Koon: I perceived that he was searching, he was seeking, he was a means to attack or a means to escape.
Mounger: All right. And you believed that he was either going to attack or escape from this position?
Koon: Yes, sir.
Mounger: Did you at some point direct your officers to do something?
Koon: Yes, I did.
Mounger: What did you direct them to do?
Koon: I directed them to hit Mr. King in his joints. I ordered them to hit his elbows, his wrist, his knees and his ankles.
Mounger: Why did you do that?
Koon: Because from my perception the blows that had initially struck his arms and legs and torso were not having any effect at all.
Mounger: And when you say “any effect at all,” what were you trying to accomplish, Sergeant Koon?
Koon: I was trying to get Mr. King to submit using pain compliance.
Mounger: And what made you believe that he had not complied?
Koon: He gave me no indication, either through facial or through any nonverbal, that he was feeling any pain.
Mounger: And did you perceive that he was trying to do anything with his body?
Koon: Yes, I did.
Mounger: What was that?
Koon: That he was trying to get up to attack or escape.
Mounger: Did you at any time believe that Mr. King had submitted your authority or your arrest?
Koon: Only at the very end.
Mounger: And how did he indicate that at the very end?
Koon: His arms were at his side and the first words that were intelligible that I heard him audible at that time.
Mounger: And what did he say to you?
Koon: He yelled, "Please stop."
Mounger: Do you believe that your officers did anything improper?
Koon: No. This was a manage/control use of force. It followed the policies and procedures of Los Angeles Police Department and the training.
Mounger: Well, you have looked at this videotape several times, haven’t you?
Koon: A multitude of times.
Mounger: And it doesn’t look very pretty, does it?
Koon: No, it does not.
Mounger: It is violent, isn’t it?
Koon: It is violent and it is brutal.
Mounger: Was this anything that you enjoyed?
Mounger: Why was it done?
Koon: It is done to control an aggressive combative suspect and sometimes police work is brutal. That is just a fact of life.
Cross examination of Koon by Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Alan S. Yochelson:
Yochelson: You didn’t wish to discontinue the use of force and simply have officers swarm Mr. King again?
Koon: I would not have swarmed Mr. King again, no, sir.
Yochelson: You did not do that. Is that correct?
Koon: I did not do that.
Yochelson: Instead it was your approach to simply keep hitting Mr. King until he did exactly what you wanted him to do. Is that correct?
Koon: Yes, sir, safety of the officers.
Yochelson: Is that the Los Angeles Police Department policy, that is, to keep hitting somebody with the baton until the person complies?
Koon: Yes, sir.
Yochelson: That is what the Los Angeles Police Department teaches?
Koon: That’s true, sir.
Yochelson: What does the Los Angeles Police Department teach with respect to the use of the baton and what areas to strike on the body?
Koon: Normally you can hit any area of the body. There are exceptions, though.
Yochelson: What are the exceptions?
Koon: They want you to stay away from the spine and they want you to stay away from the head, if at all possible.
Yochelson: And why is that?
Koon: I would presume the spine because it can cause serious injury and the head because it can cause death.
Yochelson: And hitting the spine is in fact considered a use of lethal force; is that correct?
Koon: I don’t know if it is lethal; crippling, yes.
Yochelson: Hitting the head is considered a use of lethal force, isn’t it?
Koon: In some motions with the baton, yes.
Yochelson: What motions are those?
Koon: Power stroke to—deliberately to the head is a—what I understand to be a deadly force.
Yochelson: By the way, what type of stroke was Mr. [Laurence] Powell using at the time you saw Mr. King first get onto his feet and strike Mr. King, the first stroke that Mr. Powell hit Mr. King with?
Koon: The first stroke was a power stroke.
Yochelson: And you agree that the one perception of this videotape is that that power stroke struck Mr. King in the head or face, don’t you?
Koon: That is a perception you could draw, yes.
Yochelson: And that would be an application of deadly force, if that in fact occurred; isn’t that correct?
Koon: That would be a deadly force situation, yes, sir.
Yochelson: Would it surprise you to know that there were a total of 56 blows struck with the baton?
Koon: I’ve heard that figure before, yes, sir.
Yochelson: Assuming that that figure is correct, that is what you refer to as a torrent of blows?
Koon: At that time I did not realize 56 blows had been delivered.
Yochelson: You appreciate that this was a big time use of force?
Koon: That’s how I characterized it, yes, sir, it was a big time use of force.
Yochelson: Now, you testified yesterday that as Mr. King reached the end of this event you felt that lethal force might be necessary?
Koon: Did I feel that lethal force was going to possibly be used in this situation? Is that what you mean, sir?
Koon: Yes, I did.
Yochelson: And by “lethal force” you mean deadly force; is that correct?
Koon: That’s correct, sir; chokehold or a weapon.
Yochelson: And when is deadly force authorized by Los Angeles Police Department?
Koon: I’m not sure by what you mean by “when it is authorized.”
Yochelson: When can you shoot somebody under LAPD policy?
Koon: When they are an imminent threat to you.
Yochelson: What kind of threat?
Koon: Deadly threat to you. They have to pose a deadly threat to you.
Yochelson: In other words, they have to be in a position to kill you?
Koon: That’s correct, sir.
Yochelson: And what was Mr. King doing here that led you to believe that he was going to kill you or kill somebody?
Koon: It was my belief and my perception he was under the influence of PCP. If he had grabbed my officer, it would have been a death grip. If he had grabbed the weapon, he would have had numerous targets, sir.
Yochelson: He didn’t grab anybody during theses events, did he?
Koon: No sir, he did not.
Yochelson: He didn’t kick anybody during these events, did he?
Koon: No, sir, he did not.
Yochelson: And is it your testimony that every one of these blows depicted on this videotape is a justified use of force within the meaning of the policy of the Los Angeles Police Department?
Koon: I can’t honestly say that I saw every one of those blows that was on the videotape.
Yochelson: And in watching the videotape now, is it your testimony that every one of the blows that you see on there is a justified use of force?
Koon: It is a reasonable and necessary using the minimum force, yes, sir, that is my testimony.
Yochelson: And is it your testimony that every one of those kicks or application of foot pressure either by officer [Timothy] Wind or Officer [Theodore] Briseno is justified within the policy of the Los Angeles Police Department?
Koon: It is justified. It is a minimum, it is a proper escalation of force, yes, sir.
Yochelson: And this videotape, by your attorney’s estimate, focuses upon  seconds of the use of force?
Koon: Yes, I believe it has been timed at 81.
Yochelson: And 56 blows are shown here, approximately?
Koon: That is the count I’ve heard. I have never verified that, sir.
Yochelson: But you would agree that that is a fair estimate?
Koon: I’ve never counted it, sir. I don’t know.
Yochelson: You would agree that this is a “big time use of force”?
Koon: Definitely, sir, this is a big time use of force.
Yochelson: And given all of that and all your years of experience, sir, have you ever seen a worse beating applied by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department?
Koon: I have seen uses of force of considerable violence, but I have not seen anything that is as violent as this in my 14 and a half years, no, sir.
Yochelson: You have never seen officers of the Los Angeles Police Department apply violence as is depicted on this videotape?
Koon: Oh, I have, sir, several times.
Twenty years after the L.A. riots, the victim at the center of it all talks of wounds that still need healing.
From videotaped beatings to the gunfights in Koreatown, the riots’ most searing moments.
When the 1992 riots erupted, L.A. Times Editor Shelby Coffey and his team literally jumped into the fray.
The video of Rodney King's brutal beating first aired on local news the night of March 3, 1991. Shocking as it was, its place in history was not guaranteed. Newsweek & The Daily Beast's Kathy O'Hearn was the LA bureau chief for ABC News at the time. She recounts the debate inside the newsroom as the nation's leading TV news organization broke a critically important piece of the Rodney King story.
March 3, 1991
March 16, 1991
Fifteen-year-old black teenage Latasha Harlins is shot dead by a Korean covenience store owner in Los Angeles who suspected her of shoplifting. The incident, which happened one day after the Rodney King officers pled not guilty, is seen by many as an underreported catalyst of the riots.
Nov 15, 1991
Soon Ja Du, who shot Latasha Harlins, is found guilty of involuntary manslaughter but avoids prison time.
April 29, 1992
On the seventh day of jury deliberations, all four officers in the King case are acquitted. Almost immediately, riots start in south central Los Angeles.
At 6:45 p.m., Reginald Denny is beaten nearly to death at the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues. It's captured on film (via helicopter) by Bob Tur.
April 30, 1992
President Bush addresses the nation from the Oval Office, saying that "anarchy" will not be tolerated.
May 1, 1992
Rodney King appears on TV, asking, "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?"
Meanwhile, the first of 10,000 National Guard troops flood into Los Angeles.
May 2, 1992
The Justice Dept. announces an inquiry into Rodney King's beating.
May 3, 1992
Mayor Bradley lifts the curfew he had imposed on L.A., signifying the official end to the six-day riots.
March 9, 1993
Rodney King testifies in the federal retrial of the LAPD officers. In a later civil case, he is awarded $3.8 million.