10 November 2005

How Not to Quell a Riot: Los Angeles, 1992

In November 2004, the Suburban Emergency Management Project issued a three-part series of biots on "The Flawed Emergency Response to the 1992 Los Angeles Riots":

Part A
Editor’s Note: This case report is well-written and eminently valuable because it provides keen insights into how the 1992 LA riots actually got started (beyond the obvious cause of the [Rodney King] verdict). If I had to finger one cause beyond the verdict itself, it would be the abdication of civil leadership during a time of severe social stress. What is stunning about the 1992 LA riots is their uncanny resemblance to the LA Watts riots of 1965, which the civil leadership of 1992 (e.g., [LAPD Chief Daryl] Gates, [LA Mayor Thomas] Bradley, [Congresswoman Maxine] Waters) must surely have experienced as young adults. Experienced and informed leadership is at no time more important than during social stress situations when managers and line staff require effective and timely direction and support.
Part B
Editor’s Note: Absent a functioning police force, the riot spun out of control.
Part C
Editor’s Note: It is easy to be appalled at the flawed organization response to the 1992 LA riots. If one views the situation through the lens of emergent collective behaviors during disasters, it is easier to comprehend. Command and control models of organization response do not work well during times of severe civilian social stress. From the original leadership vacuum created in particular by the personality and flawed leadership of Chief Gates, the events escalated beyond anyone’s control until finally the rioters were tired and spent and there was not much else left to destroy. That is when the riots stopped, even though we may wish to believe that the massive organizational response finally brought about this desired result.
Here are some illustrations of how not to proceed.

1. Paralyze your leadership.
The conflict between Gates and Bradley in the months leading up to the verdict “had transformed [police] department dynamics, with some assistant and deputy chiefs disillusioned, others trying to win approval as possible successors, and others on their way out. Indeed, by the time of the jury’s deliberation, the leadership for the LAPD was in a state of near paralysis,” reports Rosegrant. Further, both Gates and Bradley reached the conclusion that “the LAPD should not make a public show of mobilizing” (p. 14) should violence occur. “This sense of cautiousness had already seeped throughout the department: LAPD arrests had dropped significantly during the previous year as police changed tactics and avoided problematic arrests that might lead to discipline or a charge of excessive force. The feeling that ‘I get paid the same for not making arrests, and am less apt to get in trouble,’ was almost a guiding rule,’ rued one police officer.” Bradley, Maxine Waters, and other black leaders opposed a highly mobilized LAPD both because they feared police might overreact and create another Rodney King-like incident, and because they worried that the mere sight of riot-ready police could incite a violent reaction among already tense residents.” (p. 14)
2. Put your own political interests first.
Chief Gates, who appeared unaware of the seriousness of the disturbance, had left at 6:30 pm for a political fundraiser outside of LA. Gates thought there were sporadic problems, but his attitude, according to one observer, was “By God, get in there and deal with it. It’s not going to take the chief of police of the city of Los Angeles to run this operation, and if it does, I’ve got the wrong people below me. There was no centralized direction.” (p. 4) In response to a flood of 9-1-1 calls, a lieutenant at headquarters finally declared a tactical alert at 6:45 pm, a step that many believed Gates should have taken much earlier. When Gates returned to headquarters after 10 pm, he “took [Hunt] absolutely apart in public,” according to one observer. (p. 8) Gates later remarked, “Since I’d been though it, I kind of though that fellow members of the top command knew what to do. They didn’t.” Fire Chief Manning said, “We all know that a plan that people don’t know about is as bad as no plan at all—in fact, it’s probably worse. In this case, I think Daryl [Gates] believed that they had a plan. He may well have believed that his people were fully trained in it. In the real world, they weren’t.” (p.8) Later when the LAPD tried to isolate the Florence-Normandie area, the effort came too late to be effective.
3. Let the media set your priorities.
During the first night of the riot on April 29, 1992, the emergency operations center (EOC), though officially activated, became “kind of an isolated island of non-information” according to the LAPD’s Commander Bayan Lewis (B, p. 6). Officers gleaned information from the television coverage of the riots and tended to dispatch resources to locations being featured on television to the detriment of other areas of the city that also had needs. The EOC communications system, which consisted of handwritten notes sent by runners to various officials in the main room or satellite rooms, rapidly became overloaded so that many requests were never delivered.
4. Allow the riot to spread.
Meanwhile, approximately 50,000 young men in South Central flooded the streets, many with new weapons looted from gun stores and pawn shops, which had remained unguarded by police officers. The riot demographics changed after the first night, which was dominated by enraged members of the African-American community, e.g., the attacks by young black males on Reginald Denny. But by the second day, people of all races, ages, gender, and income levels were looting and other illegal behavior.

The media coverage seemed to exacerbate the looting. One African-American woman, for example, told a media person that “watching television convinced her to go steal diaper, cans of food, and produce because she … ’didn’t know if there were going to be any stores standing.’” (C, p. 7) A fire department battalion commander noted, “You could almost get a game plan off television, because they would gather concerns from the local officials about where it was happening and what was happening. I think that gave a lot of direction to the rioters.” (C, p. 7)
5. Deploy unprepared Guard troops.
By 4 am on April 30, 1992, 2,000 Guard troops had reported to about ten armories in the city area. The goal of getting the troops on the streets by 4 pm, April 30, was hindered by failure to assign which agency would coordinate the Guard’s involvement, deciding what its missions would be, and estimating how many more troops ultimately might be called up. Unknown to Thrasher and Wilson, most of the troops weren’t really trained to respond to a riot. As a result, commanders at the armories trained the troops on the spot. Troops had to read and sign a copy of the Rules of Engagement, which emphasized the importance of restraint, so that soldiers “wouldn’t leave themselves open to charges, such as those that arose after the Watts riots, of having fired on rioters without adequate cause.” (C, p. 5)
6. Send in the Marines to quell domestic disturbances.
The 1992 LA riots were officially over when Mayor Bradley lifted the curfew on May 4. But city officials and residents were reluctant to see federal and Guard troops leave. General Covault wanted his troops to leave as soon as possible. For example, one incident in particular alarmed him. “Police and Marines were responding to a disturbance, which turned out to be a domestic dispute, when two shotgun rounds were fired through the door. One of the police officers shouted, ‘Cover me,’ meaning that the Marines should have their weapons ready to respond if necessary. But the Marines, understanding ‘cover me’ to mean providing cover by using firepower, shot off what was later estimate to have been more than 200 rounds.” (C, p. 21) Remarkably, no one in the apartment was injured. Finally, on May 9, federal troops began to depart. Five days later, the Guard also began to disengage. On May 27, the last solders headed home.

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