I was in my dorm room at San Diego State University, listening to the Led Zeppelin cover of "When the Levee Breaks," when I first saw George Holliday's amateur video of the Rodney King incident on CNN. It looked like those grainy films of Selma, Ala., in 1965, and the brutality turned my stomach. They didn't really talk about Rodney King when I went through the Los Angeles Police Academy a few years later. The department just tore its clothes and sat shiva for those officers, and we didn't speak of them or the deadly riots that followed their acquittals 15 years ago this week. I went on thinking that those cops were racist brutes.
My first year as a cop, 1998, my perspective was changed a little by a "third strike" criminal who went by the moniker of Nine-Nine. He carjacked a woman right in front of my partner and me - at Florence and Normandie, no less, the infamous epicenter of the riots, where Damian Williams bashed in Reginald Denny's head with a brick and danced his sadistic jig for the news helicopters.
After Nine-Nine's carjacking, there followed a vehicle pursuit, a foot pursuit and a fight. That was the first time I had to use my baton. It wasn't pleasant for me, and I know it wasn't pleasant for Nine-Nine. And if there had been a video, it wouldn't have been pleasant to watch.
I'm not an LAPD apologist, and this isn't John Wayne in The Green Berets telling David Janssen that you can't make an omelet without breaking a few skulls. It's just that civilians have the option of walking away from a fight. But cops often don't. Some of these hard-core felons are apex predators, red in tooth and claw, and they don't want to be arrested. They'll run from you. If you catch them, they'll fight you. And if you let them, they'll kill you. It happens faster than you think, and you don't have the option of slowing the fight down to advance it frame by frame.
After Rodney King and after the riots, it became fashionable for journalists, politicians and activists to talk about the need to change the culture of the LAPD, as though we're a bunch of holdout Confederates who refused to turn in our sabers after Appomattox. Formal critiques came from two blue-ribbon panels - the Christopher and Webster commissions - that changed how the chief is appointed and the police commission operates, and they demanded an emphasis on community policing.
So, has the LAPD evolved since the riots? You bet. We're better equipped, more diverse, more sophisticated, more racially sensitive. I also honestly believe that, as a result, we are more responsive to the communities we serve. Still, no amount of racial sensitivity will make an ex-con want to go back to prison. And the next time officers have to arrest some dude with his head full of PCP, I can promise you it's still going to be ugly, because the application of physical violence is ugly.
When Bernard C. Parks was police chief, we had to watch Nordstrom's customer service training videos, and we had to refer to arrestees as "clients." I still don't intend to let a client take away my gun and give me an unscheduled lobotomy with it. In police work, violence isn't always a failure of diplomacy.
Sure, we've had our share of thugs in uniform through the years, but I have to say that hasn't been my experience of this department's culture. Make no mistake. It's still us against them, our magic against theirs. But the "them" we battle isn't the community we serve, it's the jackals who prey on it.
Last week, I stood humbled in the courtyard behind 77th Street Station with 100 other cops to honor retiring officers. These men embody the culture of the LAPD, and there's nothing recalcitrant or retrograde about them.
Into their 60s and 70s, these guys were still clearing cases, still arresting bad guys, still serving the people of South-Central. They stood shoulder to shoulder during the 1992 riots, protecting South-Central even as its residents raged against everything they stood for. In the years that followed, they watched chiefs arrive beloved and leave beleaguered. They worked through a major corruption scandal and finally a consent decree. None of it changed the way these men conducted themselves because this was never just a job for them. It was their vocation.
They were treating addicts and gangsters with humanity and respect long before the Christopher Commission told them they had to. Because they're honorable men.
This is the culture of the LAPD. Pray it never changes.
Will Beall, author of the novel "L.A. Rex," is an officer with the LAPD's South Bureau gang homicide unit. This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.