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25 Years After Los Angeles Riots, Progress And Distrust Live Side By Side

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Twenty-five years after deadly riots erupted in Los Angeles when four white police officers were acquitted in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King, an undercurrent of distrust pulses in a city that says it has worked hard at police reforms.

South Los Angeles, the mostly African-American area where the violence started in 1992 - including the brutal beating of a white truck driver that was broadcast live on television - is still plagued with many of the economic problems that contributed to the unrest.

Long before the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement, the name Rodney King became synonymous with the use of excessive force in policing minority groups. King, who was then 25, was battered by a squad of officers after a traffic stop in March 1991, an incident that was caught in graphic detail on a bystander's video.

Residents of South Los Angeles will gather on Saturday to mark the anniversary with a march starting from the intersection of Florence and Normandie, where the violence broke out when a crowd attacked truck driver Reginald Denny.

A separate commemoration on Saturday at a prominent South Los Angeles church will bring together the African-American and Korean-American communities. Korean-American-owned businesses were particularly targeted by rioters in 1992, ransacked at a disproportionately high rate.

The rioting killed more than 50 people and caused an estimated $1 billion in damage over six days.

Current and former city officials point to changes that they say have reduced strains between police and the community. But blight still mars South Los Angeles, where many residents struggle to find work and earn enough to live on, and many in Los Angeles think that riots are not just a thing of the past.

The last quarter-century has brought sweeping changes to the way the Los Angeles Police Department operates, according to current and former city officials, reducing some of the mistrust many residents feel toward law enforcement.

Bernard Parks, the city's police chief from 1997 to 2002 and later a city councilman, said one of the most important changes he made was taking away the power of supervisors to quash misconduct complaints against officers.

"I found the greatest complaint people had about the system wasn't necessarily the outcome but that they weren't necessarily able to make a complaint," Parks said in a phone interview.

More broadly, Mayor Eric Garcetti and other current officials credit a federal consent decree imposed on the Los Angeles Police Department in 2001 with helping to reform it.

"Los Angeles in 1992 was a different place," Garcetti told CBS News on Friday. "It was much more segregated."

But in an indication of strained relations, the last two years have seen a number of Los Angeles police shootings culminate in protests at police commission meetings.

"The police department has definitely changed. There's still a lot of work to be done, but I credit a lot of the changes to the community and those activists who have picked up the mantle from the activists in 1992," said writer and commentator Jasmyne Cannick, who has been a high-profile critic of the LAPD.

Unemployment in South Los Angeles, the epicenter of the 1992 riots, stands at 13 percent, compared with 10 percent for all of Los Angeles County, according to the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge. In 1990, the closest year to the riots for which data is available, unemployment in South Los Angeles was at 15 percent.

In some residential blocks of South Los Angeles, storefronts that were destroyed are still vacant, highlighting the morass in the neighborhood.

Many residents are worried about a recurrence of rioting, especially after the destructive unrest that broke out in Baltimore, Ferguson, Missouri, and other U.S. cities after police killings over the past three years.

Nearly 60 percent of Los Angeles residents think another riot is likely in the next five years, according to a survey released this week by Loyola Marymount University. It was the first time in 20 years researchers found an increase in the share of residents who gave that answer.

Henry Keith Watson, 53, who took part in the beating of Denny, the truck driver, as the Los Angeles riots began and who was later convicted of misdemeanor assault, is among those who see the city as still dealing with the same problems as in 1992. 

"What do you think has changed?" Watson said in an interview at his house in South Los Angeles. "Please tell me."

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