Crime & Justice

20 years after the riots, LAPD cops reflect on lessons learned

Sergeant Hendley Hawkins, left, and Commander Bob Green both served in the LAPD during the '92 riots.
Sergeant Hendley Hawkins, left, and Commander Bob Green both served in the LAPD during the '92 riots.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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Bob Green is as blue as you get - L.A.P.D. blue. Born and raised in Westchester near Los Angeles International Airport, Green always wanted to be a police officer - to chase bad guys and serve his community. He's worked in the gang unit, SWAT and flown helicopters patrolling the city he loves from above.

Green was a ten year veteran when his fellow cops were videotaped beating Rodney King.

“Day after day after day that video was played," he recalled. "To be an L.A. cop at the time, it was horrible because no matter who were or what you had done – you were racist and you were brutal.”

Green knew Stacey Koon, the supervising sergeant in the King beating. "A tremendous individual, a man of character," Green said of Koon. “When I saw the video, I was horrified," he said. "So I called and said 'Stacy, what happened?'”

He said Koon gave the same explanation he later gave to a jury – that King kept resisting officers, and that they had no other choice. Green, now a commander who oversees operations in South L.A., said it’s clear the officers were overtaken by their adrenaline and developed “tunnel vision” as they tried to subdue King. But he won’t condemn the verdict that found Koon and three other officers not guilty of excessive use of force.

“Well, if you just look at testimony, the use of force policy, if you take everything else out, that’s the conclusion the jury came to," he said. "Correctly."

“Ultimately, the only people that know for sure whether their actions were justified and they were doing it for the right reasons are the cops that were swinging those batons," Green said.

Hendley Hawkins thought the verdict was “an injustice.” As a young black man, he was all too familiar with the frustrations of African Americans who'd been stopped many times, for no apparent reason. “I would say on average probably three to four times a week” during one year, he said.

Hawkins joined the L.A.P.D. a year after the riots to push for change from the inside. “That was my goal - to make sure that officers understood that not everybody in this community was bad and up to no good.”

Hawkins, now a sergeant in a more diverse L.A.P.D., said he has changed some minds in his 15 years on the force. His own perspective on the King beating also has changed, even if he doesn't condone it. “That person wasn’t cooperating, that person was fighting," he said. "I want to go home to my family at the end of the night, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to go home to my family. "

Today, L.A.P.D. brass preaches that it often takes less force to get home safe – that officers’ best weapon is their brain, not their brawn. The leadership didn’t changed willingly. The federal justice department mandated reforms in training and discipline after the King beating and Rampart Scandal. The city also hired former New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, who served as L.A.P.D. chief for seven years and is credited as a key player in changing the culture.

Over the crackle of a police radio, Hawkins described how officers are more closely watched now. The sergeant sits inside a patrol car at the 77th Street Station and points to a digital camera that captures officers’ behavior. The department uses the "in-car" cameras to examine officers’ actions – whether they’re firing their gun or stopping drivers.

Hawkins, who once was drafted into the N.F.L. as a wide receiver, likens the camera's images to films reviewed by coaches and athletes after games. Police supervisors use the videos as a teaching tool, but also to confirm or discredit allegations of officer misconduct. "Its been a big plus."

Only a small fraction of squad cars have cameras. The department plans to eventually place them in all cars, which may also help settle the debate over whether officers engage in racial profiling.

Another key reform: a computer system that tracks a wide range of information on officers. Commander Green – like many cops - initially resisted the idea. “I’m thinking, 'What do we need this for?'," he said.

Now, he’s embraced the tracking system known as Teams II. “It helps me identify cops with at risk behavior early on so I can intervene before they lose their job,” Green said.

It also helps supervisors identify problem officers. “Right. You can’t be disrespectful and brutal in one area of the city and transfer someplace else where nobody knows you and start over.”

Still some say the department needs to do more. Some members of the civilian police commission recently raised questions about whether Chief Charlie Beck has been too lenient with officers involved in questionable shootings. And a police watchdog group has condemned the department's anti-terrorism surveillance policy that allows officers to collect information on people involved in non-criminal acts, such as taking pictures of government buildings.

“L.A.P.D. officers are authorized to gather street level intelligence and secretly open files on people who are engaging in activities such as taking pictures, using binoculars, taking notes, drawing diagrams," Hamid Khan of the Campaign to Rescind Special Order 11, said.

But the L.A.P.D. generally gets better marks on the streets now days. “It was total disrespect... 20 years ago," Perry Crouch of the Watts Gang Task Force said. "Now, it’s a partnership to save lives."

Commander Green agrees. Sitting in a conference room at South Bureau headquarters, he is about to go into a meeting with a group of former gang members to try to figure out how to reduce violence. It's an extraordinary meeting - and one he never would have had a decade ago.

“As a young cop, you think good guy, bad buy." he said. "It couldn’t be further from the truth. Between the good guy and the bad guy there is a sea of gray area.”

That attitude is one reason Green doesn’t think there will ever be another day like April 29th, 1992. He said he has relationships with the community he polices and he’s working to stop trouble before it starts.

Green is something of a contradiction. He is a hard-charging veteran cop who's developed a more open and progressive outlook on policing. But the King beating, which he calls "awful", still frustrates Green two decades later.

"After that whole thing was done, never heard anybody tell us what could have been done differently.”