King had been pulled over for driving recklessly through a residential neighborhood. Later tests showed he was extremely drunk and had marijuana in his system. When police ordered him out of the car, he refused, and the police eventually pulled him out. Twice, the police attempted to subdue him with tasers, but these did not succeed in rendering King immobile. Next, the police kicked King and struck him 56 times with night sticks, first to knock him on the ground, then to keep him there as he attempted to lift his head while he lay on the ground.
In addition to the three officers personally involved in delivering blows, 24 other law enforcement officers watched the beating, then assisted in holding King down by placing their feet on his back. Two other African-American passengers who were in the car with King cooperated with police and were not harmed.
The three officers and the sergeant said to be in charge of them were indicted on March 15 for "assault by force likely to produce great bodily injury and a deadly weapon" and with assault "under color of authority," and two were charged with filing false police reports, which had been filed before the officers were aware the incident had been videotaped. Three of the officers were white, and one was Hispanic.
The defense successfully filed for a change of venue away from Los Angeles County where the incident occurred and where they argued the defendants would not receive a fair trial, to suburban Ventura County (Simi Valley), whose population is more affluent, contains a much smaller proportion of African-Americans, and contains a disproportionately large number of law enforcement officers. At trial, the defense argued that the officers had legitimate reason to believe King was extremely dangerous and possibly on a mind-affecting drug such as PCP, and that the force used was justified by this threat. Although media coverage had repeatedly emphasized the racial aspect of the case, King himself testified at trial that he did not believe the police beat him because he was black.
The verdict shocked much of the country, many of who had already decided the officers were guilty before the trial began. The President of the United States, George H. W. Bush, made a rare statement on a trial, saying that the verdict "has left us all with a deep sense of personal frustration and anguish." The verdict triggered massive rioting in Los Angeles which left hundreds of buildings severely damaged or destroyed and dozens dead. Smaller riots occurred in other U.S. cities. During the riot King pleaded with the rioters, saying on national television, "Can't we all just get along?"
On May 1, as the riots continued, President Bush announced that he would most likely charge the officers with violating King's civil rights. This was a common practice in the 1960s when all-white juries routinely acquitted people charged with racially-motivated crimes. King testified in this trial on March 9, 1993. Then on August 4, a federal judge sentenced LAPD officers Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell to 30 months in prison on this charge. The other officers were not convicted and there was no rioting. Many critics have claimed that this second trial violated the principle of double jeopardy.
King's actual first name is Glen, not Rodney. The media referred to him as "Rodney King" because in either initial police reports or initial news reports, he was mistakenly called Rodney King, and as the news was rebroadcast, the error was rebroadcast as well. The name "Rodney" was not associated with Glen King (Glen being King's birthname) until after his 1991 car stop by police.
Since the 1991 incident, King has been arrested several times for drug infractions, violence, and motoring offenses.
The video of the incident is an example of inverse surveillance (i.e. citizens watching police). To the extent that the bystander was initially capturing the incident serendipitously, the recording was a form of sousveillance, in both the sense of inverse surveillance as well as the sense of personal experience capture. The video was first broadcast on the local Los Angeles television station KTLA Channel 5.
African American community and civil rights leaders have repeatedly used the Rodney King incident as an analogy of other incidents of perceived police beating against black suspects.