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Los Angeles riots: 20 years later, has LAPD reformed?

The view that the Los Angeles Police Department was corrupt and abusive fueled the Rodney King riots. Twenty years later, however, the LAPD has won over some of its harshest critics.

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Police question two men who made makeshift memorial for a fallen gang member near the intersection of Florence and Normandie in Los Angeles. April 29 will mark the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of four Los Angeles Police officers in the videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King.

Jonathan Alcorn/REUTERS

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Twenty years after a video of officers kicking and clubbing motorist Rodney King made the Los Angeles Police Department the poster child for police abuse, residents and community activists say the department has turned a corner.

A succession of police chiefs – most notably William Bratton – have made reform a top priority. Eight years of federal oversight helped clean up the department. And the changing demographics of the LAPD – 37 percent white, compared with 59 percent in 1992 – has changed the character of the force, many say. 

There are signs of slippage, some say, such as a reluctance to reprimand officers who were found by a commission to have killed or wounded people unjustifiably. But on a 20th anniversary bus tour of the riot areas Tuesday – organized by Operation Hope, which was formed in the wake of the riots to expand economic opportunity in underserved communities – the notes were universally positive. 

“Don’t you love the police when they’re on your side?” said Eric Clay, HOPE’s vice president for community lending, going for a laugh as tour guide on one bus, nodding out the window at the police escort.

The Los Angeles Times reports that 70 percent of Los Angeles residents now say they approve of the police department, and at one stop on the bus tour, the Korean owner of a small convenience store offers words of praise.

“Twenty years ago, when the police showed up, everyone got more tense. Now you feel they’re here to help," he says. "That’s a big change.”

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