Officer Delwin Fields guards the intersection at Central Avenue and 46th Street on April 30, 1992. Los Angeles Police Department officials say the response to such events now would be much different.
Photo credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times/TNS
LOS ANGELES — The riots that consumed Los Angeles 25 years ago had many causes — grinding poverty and hopelessness in South Los Angeles, a police force with a reputation for treating minorities poorly, the not-guilty verdict against the white officers caught on tape beating black motorist Rodney King.
But the police tactics — or lack of them — in the crucial hours when the rioting began are also considered a major factor in why the city burned for three days.
Despite deep concerns in the community about violence if the verdict was not guilty, the LAPD didn’t have a plan to deal with unrest. When the first flashpoint of violence erupted at the corner of Florence and Normandie, the LAPD moved in. But, outnumbered, the police infamously retreated.
For the next few hours, a horrified city — and world — watched on live television as rioters pulled motorists out of cars and beat them, set buildings on fire and looted stores, with no police in sight.
Those images haunted the Los Angeles Police Department for years after and represented to many an unacceptable breaking of civil order and government service.
“My belief is it’s a failure of the institution,” LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said in an interview this week.
Since then, police and others have analyzed what went wrong and how officials would deal with unrest now. Here’s a breakdown of these conclusions, through the eyes of LAPD Assistant Chief Michel Moore:
A jury acquits Officers Stacey C. Koon, Lawrence M. Powell, Theodore J. Briseno and Timothy E. Wind in the King beating.
1992 tactics: Moore said the LAPD was ill-prepared to deal with the verdict because its relations with the minority communities back then were so poor. The department had made no inroads with community activists, politicians and community leaders about how they could deal with unrest.
2017 tactics: Over the last 25 years, LAPD relations with community groups have improved dramatically, though they are still far from perfect. The LAPD regularly meets with various stakeholders and also has developed intelligence-gathering processes with former gang members.
LAPD officers respond to the first report of trouble at the intersection of Florence and Normandie. Beer cans are being thrown at passing motorists.
1992 tactics: LAPD officers were overwhelmed by the growing crowd at Florence and Normandie and retreated. That left a huge crowd of rioters with no police in sight. The mob’s behavior got more violent, and it was broadcast on live television.
Soon, other scenes of disorder were breaking out around the city. People kept asking, “Where are the police?”
2017 tactics: “We wouldn’t have left,” Beck said. “We would have brought in sufficient resources to restore order. But I think that just like anything, taking it down to the individual police action, once it starts getting away from you, the results are foregone. You’re going to end up using significant force or resources.”
Moore said today, instead of pulling back, the LAPD would flood the zone with more officers. The idea would be to use overwhelming strength to put down the riots in the early stages, preventing them from spreading.
The department now has strategies developed after the riots to move platoons of officers to an area fairly quickly. They also use tactics to isolate troublemakers and if necessary deploy an array of less-lethal munitions to break up mobs.
The department would likely run the operation from a large command bus at the location. Commanders would try to limit the size of the crowd.