It’s been 20 years since the police officers involved in the beating of motorist Rodney King were acquitted, sparking the Los Angeles riots. Although the violence did not spread to New York City, which was relatively quiet at the time, it still raises questions about whether the relationship between the police and minority communities has improved and whether a similar scenario could be repeated.
If you ask Police Commissioner Ray Kelly whether he thinks police-community relations have improved, and the Chronicle did when he came to the office for an interview June 7, his answer was that they are better than ever.
Leroy Gadsden, president of the Jamaica branch of the NAACP, disagrees and said Tuesday that Kelly is in denial, adding that the majority of people who are arrested, brutally beaten or killed by police are black and Hispanic.
“It sounds nice to say things have gotten better just like it sounded nice for people on plantations in the South to say they had happy slaves,” Gadsden said.
King was beaten by four LAPD officers in 1991 and the incident was caught on video. When the cops were acquitted of wrongdoing in 1992, residents rioted for six days, causing about $1 billion in property damage. There was widespread looting, assault, arson and even murder. Some 53 people were killed and over two thousand were injured.
King — who after the incident famously asked, “Can we all get along?” — was found dead in his swimming pool Sunday at the age of 47. The cause of his death is still being investigated.
“It was tragic and sad,” Gadsden said of King’s death. “Rodney King wrote his own chapter in the history books. He opened America’s eyes to police brutality. It was something victims had known about, but it was something that remained hidden from non-victims.”
For the most part, residents in Southeast Queens interviewed for this article said there has been little improvement in police-community relations since two decades ago when the King beating happened and offered mixed reactions on whether they thought another LA riots-scenario would be taking place anytime soon in the five boroughs.
“I believe it’s better,” Donna Clopton, president of the 103rd Precinct Community Council said. “Every profession has its renegades and you can’t get rid of all the renegades, but I believe it has gotten better, and I hope it will continue to get better.”
Arthur Broadbelt, who has owned an insurance business on Farmers Boulevard in St. Albans since 1971, said he was saddened to hear of King’s death. “With all the things that he went through, it was terrible that he had to go that way,” Broadbelt said. “I think most people agree, in all communities, that what happened to him was not fair.”
Broadbelt said he believes the relationship between police and young people remains strained due to the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy, which he said he does not support because it is not equally used in all communities. However, Broadbelt said he could not see riots taking place in the city anytime soon.
“I don’t think it has gotten to that explosive point,” he said. “People vent, and I think when you vent by protesting and talking to community leaders and the clergy, these things are less likely to happen.”
Anthony Feurtado, a real estate agent with Green Team Realty on Linden Boulevard in St. Albans, agreed with Broadbelt that stop and frisk is a big problem, but differed by saying that he could see a riot in the future in Southeast Queens.
“Of course it could happen,” Feurtado said. “I was here during the riots in the 1970s when the police killed Clifford Glover, a little kid. There were riots in ’73 ’74, when the cop was acquitted. Yeah, it could happen. People get tired of it.”
Glover, 10, was shot by Police Officer Thomas Shea on April 28, 1973 in South Jamaica. Shea swore that the child was armed, but a weapon was never recovered.
Gadsden said that if the Police Department doesn’t admit that there is a problem, particularly with the use of racial profiling, and work toward a solution, the results could be disastrous.
“A lot of people are getting tired of being mistreated and if we don’t see a change there could be more attacks on law enforcement,” Gadsden said. “I don’t advocate that. I think we should have respect for the police, but some people are not listening to what we’re preaching.”
Adrienne Adams, also a member of the Jamaica NAACP, expressed a similar point of view. “I don’t think we are in danger of an LA-type riot, but over the years there have been far too many unjustified shootings by police officers that have driven a substantial wedge between the police and the people,” she said.