In the early morning hours of Saturday, April 17, 1993 after seven days of deliberation, it was announced that the jury hearing the Rodney King Civil Rights case had found officer Laurence M. Powell and Sgt. Stacey C. Koon guilty of violating King’s civil rights.
As the verdicts were announced, a collective sigh of relief swept through the city. While police and city officials remained on alert for any signs of trouble, everyone else in Los Angeles simultaneously relaxed for the first time in weeks.
This was in stark contrast to the situation nearly one year previously when on Wednesday, April 29th, many areas of Los Angeles and Orange County erupted in violence. On that day, in the aftermath of the “not guilty” verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating case and the previous Latasha Harlans shooting. Riots sprung up from an initial flash point in central Los Angeles at the now infamous corner of Florence and Normandie.
But not this year.
The outcome of the Rodney King Civil Rights Trial found a city whose public agencies were well prepared for any situation. So much had changed that, a “non-crime wave” overwhelmed the city.
The presence of all forms of law enforcement was so prevalent that the number of crimes in Los Angeles dropped precipitously during this period
A great deal of mistakes were made the first time (in 1992) and many swore that the same mistakes would not be repeated.
For example, the average number of calls for help received by the L.A.P.D. dropped more than 21% on the day the verdict was read.
Changes in the L.A.P.D.
After the riots and a deluge of intense criticism focused on the Los Angeles Police Department, Chief Daryl F. Gates left the department and was replaced by the current Chief Willie L. Williams. Williams brought a drastically different outlook to the department.
As one component of his civil disturbance/riot control program, Williams instituted a strategy that relies on rapid and massive police response to potential riot situations. This strategy has been tested several times over the past year during such circumstances and has proven to be successful. For example:
- On Monday, December 14th 1992, several demonstrators supporting the men accused of nearly beating driver Reginald Denny to death, clashed with police in a rock and bottle throwing incident at the corner of Florence and Normandie. A tactical alert was called throughout the South-Central Los Angeles area.
- During an alert, officers cannot leave at the end of their shifts without specific instructions to do so. This ensures that more police officers are on duty and provides greater police coverage over extended periods of time. In addition, only critical calls are handled. This further frees officers to deal with only the most critical problems.
- Three hundred officers were deployed into the immediate vicinity to contain the violence. Fifty-five people were arrested, 4 charged with felonies . The police used foam rubber bullets to disburse the crowd. These gas fired projectiles were added to the L.A.P.D. arsenal after last year’s riots and are designed to disperse crowds without causing serious injuries. The alert was lifted early Wednesday morning.
Since the events of last year’s civil disturbance, the L.A.P.D. has been analyzing their response. The result has been a much needed update of their mob control procedures and the testing of new tactics. The L.A.P.D.’s training has also begun to emphasize inter-agency coordination and cooperation - the lack of which was acutely criticized in the aftermath of last year’s riots.
Consequently, the L.A.P.D. has performed extensive training with other public agencies, including the Office of Emergency Services (OES), the Los Angeles Fire Department, Sheriff’s department and the California Highway Patrol.
In addition, out of the 7,700 officers in the department, 3,200 have undergone comprehensive training in squad tactics. In downtown Los Angeles, the L.A.P.D. and the Office of Emergency Services established “hot lines” for businesses to call to receive the latest trial information available. BOX 1
Preparations by the L.A.C.F.D.
The Los Angeles City Fire Department (the nation’s third largest) is one of the most progressive fire departments in the country. They have always been on the forefront of training and technological advances.
As with the L.A.P.D., they spent the last year preparing for the possibility of another civil disturbance. This included the formation of an ad hoc committee to develop an operational manual specifically designed to be used during a civil disturbance. This manual was completed by October 1992 and incorporates the department’s hard won experiences from the April ’92 Civil Disturbance and all existing relevant documentation.
The Tactical Alert Operation Manual covers emergency operations, command systems, tactical teams, protocols, supplies, and other vital operations. The manual is very comprehensive and is quickly becoming a model for emergency response units throughout the nation.
The L.A.C.F.D. was largely praised for their efforts during the April ’92 Civil Disturbances. They were forced to battle both structural fires and small arms fire. A number of units responding to calls were greeted by shooting. Nevertheless, they continued to perform their duties whenever possible.
This level of commitment is typified by Assistant Chief Robert R. Ramirez who said in a recent interview, “The fire servicer has the responsibility to plan for a civil disturbance, they assist in providing fire protection and emergency medical systems (EMS) services with the aid of the police department”. Assistant Chief Ramirez emphasized that this responsibility must also extend to inter-agency (Fire Department/Police Department/Highway Patrol/Sheriff Department) coordination, “you have got to plan, it’s useless if only one department plans, everyone must plan, including businesses and individuals. We will then all be working together.”
The “Fear” Factor
Over the past year, an underlying state of anxiety has existed throughout the L.A./Orange County areas.
This fear has been especially felt in the Korean-American community. A pre-verdict survey of people who lost their businesses during the 1992 Civil Disturbance was performed by the Korean American Inter-Agency Council.
Many of those surveyed reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorders. These symptoms include nightmares, loss of sleep, anxiety, fear, despondency, loss of appetite, and an increase in domestic violence and child abuse. The study reported that, “These symptoms and incidents of abuse are directly related to the civil disturbance and victims’ financial difficulties”. Of the 1,539 victims responding to the survey, only 28% have reopened their businesses. In fact 49% reported that they were pessimistic about their futures and their prospects of rebuilding. The study also reported that only 35% of the Korean-American small businesses were insured and of these, many are insured by off-shore carriers.
One of the surveyors, Yeong S. Jyoo, has criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Small Business Administration for their reliance on red tape and for issuing conflicting information.
Prior to the verdict, concern was evident within an increasing reactionary public. False rumors had sprung up everywhere. Before the verdict, a flyer announcing “Urgent Meetings” was distributed by the Franklin Hills Residents Association. This flyer proclaimed that, “We are concerned, in light of the civil unrest last May, about the possibility of another violent revolt when the Rodney King and Reginald Denny verdicts are announced. The trials started in March. The gang leaders held a Boston summit meeting in January and have said they will hit again if the verdicts do not go their way. They have also stated they will not burn their own communities this time”. Many area residents, alarmed by the flyers attended the meeting. The accuracy of the flyer was challenged at the meeting and it was later learned that the flyers were erroneous and that no such gang meeting in fact took place.
Some anxious citizens armed themselves with guns, mace, and the increasingly popular “Pepper Sprays”. These sprays contain oleoresin capsicum (or “OC” for short) and contain a mixture of water and chili pepper oil. When sprayed on a person, they can quickly incapacitate an individual, causing temporary choking, shortness of breath, and involuntary closing of the eyes. These sprays are currently being tested and issued to police officers but are generally illegal for civilian use.
Sales of legally obtained firearms also increased in the months preceding the verdict. The Department of Justice recently named Orange County as the nation’s leading metropolitan county in per capita gun sales for 1992. Residents purchased over 42,000 handguns last year or 16.9% per 1,000 residents (the 1992 average in California overall was 12.2%).
Also, the number and intensity of unprovoked attacks on police officers has followed an upward trend of recent years. The FBI has reported that the number of non-fatal attacks on police officers throughout the United States has increased from 49,156 in 1977 to 62,852 in 1991.
Of particular concern however is the increase in unprovoked random shootings since the last year’s riots. This may be related to another distressing fact in Los Angeles. The appearance of violent, anti-police graffiti (e.g. “Kill Cops”) following the first Rodney King trial has inundated South Los Angeles.
The Drive to Prepare
“This time things will be different”. This and many statements like it began immediately following the announcement that there would be a Federal “civil rights” trial. A great deal of mistakes were made the first time (in 1992) and many swore that the same mistakes would not be repeated.
Pre-verdict preparations for the possibility of renewed rioting were widely reported. For example:
- Fire Chief Leslie George in El Monte reported that he planned to ask the City Council for $11,000 to purchase protective gear, including “bullet proof’ vests. During last years riots, crews from El Monte were part of a strike force that deployed into riot areas to combat the multiple fires that broke out. In some cases, fire crews were fired upon and were forced to withdraw. Chief George said that, “In one situation they pulled out because there was gunfire. They were wearing no protection and had no police protection”.
In the private sector, preparations varied greatly throughout the area. Some businesses remained fully dependent on the ability of public agencies (police and fire departments) to protect them. Nevertheless, other organizations or groups with concerns over the potential for riots (generally either those directly affected by last spring’s riots or those in likely riot zones e.g. downtown Los Angeles) took steps to ensure employee and public safety:
- Many small business owners (especially those looted and/or destroyed during last year’s riots have purchased guns, increased riot and fire hazard policies, purchased security alarms, hired guard service providers, and even installed steel shutters over storefront windows.
- The ABC Television Center was in the process of building an Emergency Operations Center and plans to store a three day supply of food and water for up to 1,000 people. They also hired retired police officers to provide additional security and to protect its TV camera crews in the aftermath of the verdict. Director of Security John Combs was quoted in the Los Angeles Times prior to the verdict as saying, “Last year we lost a camera at gunpoint and had a reporter beat up pretty badly. It caught us by surprise and we lost a lot of equipment.”
- The Times has also reported that the Administrators at the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center established “safe” routes to provide shuttle service to transport staff to and from the hospital. They also set up a special day-care center to safeguard their personnel’s children in the event that a riot disrupted their normal child care arrangements. Hospital spokeswoman Julia Richmond was quoted as saying, “What we learned from last spring’s civil unrest are the things we need to do for our employees”. In addition, the hospital is also reviewing its service level agreements with critical vendors to guarantee delivery of critical supplies such as blood and medicines. New contracts will stipulate minimal service levels in the event of a disaster.
- Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) based in downtown Los Angeles has had an Emergency Response Plan since before the 1992 Civil Disturbance. An ARCO spokesperson was quoted in the Los Angeles Business Journal as saying, “We have an emergency response plan that has been in place for a long time, and we feel that has us adequately prepared for any potential situation”.
- Pomona First Federal Savings & Loan, headquartered approximately 35 miles east of downtown stockpiled board-up materials at each of its branch locations. Prior to the verdict, they were also in the process of conducting emergency drills and simulations.
Besides these companies, other large organizations quietly made preparations, especially those in the downtown (Los Angeles) area. However, when asked to comment (prior to the final verdict), they declined to be interviewed. A factor often cited had been the “media blitz” surrounding the trial, which many believed encourage additional violence.
On Friday prior to the announcement of the verdict, a rapid sequence of events took place. These included a deluge of public and private appeals that overwhelmed the city.
- A “major announcement” was scheduled for the next morning at 7:00 AM.
- The Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department were placed on tactical alert.
- In the San Fernando Valley, the police reassured more than 200 residents and business owners that the were prepared for any eventuality and that rumors of gang “targeting” of the valley were unfounded.
- Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley held a new conference and made a plea for the public to remain calm, whatever the outcome of the trial.
- Many businesses braced for the possibility of civic unrest. Some boarding up storefront windows and bringing down security gates.
- Large groups of residents began stockpiling food supplies.
- Rumor “Hot-lines” were sponsored by several groups such as: the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, Councilwoman Joy Picus, and Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores.
- Church leaders urged the community to remain calm and formed riot prevention “Teams” to patrol the streets and respond to any threats of civic violence.
The verdict was read during a news conference early on Saturday, April 17th. Officers Laurence M. Powell and Sgt. Stacey C. Coon were found guilty of violating Rodney King’s civil rights. Officers Timothy E. Wind and Theodore J. Briseno were acquitted. Despite this “split decision” the public was obviously relieved that the previous year’s violence did not re-occur.
Unfortunately, disaster preparedness seems to be the exception rather than the rule. The Fire and Police Departments, other public agencies, and individual businesses prepared for the worst following the Rodney King Civil Rights Trial. In fact, the inordinate precautions taken may have very well prevented a civil disturbance from occurring. Fortunately many of these preparations were, for the most part, not needed - THIS TIME! However, they will be invaluable if ANY disaster occurs in the future.
Conversely, for many businesses in the Los Angeles/Orange County areas (generally those not seriously affected by last year’s riots), it was “business as usual” with no concrete or coordinated actions taking place to prepare for the very serious potential of a similar event or other disaster occurring. By not being prepared, these organizations risk the long term viability of their companies.
As with other types of Disaster Recovery/Business Resumption planning, these organizations are relying almost exclusively on the protection provided by public agencies. However as with any type of disaster, all public agencies will be overwhelmed (no matter how well prepared they are) with assistance requests if a major catastrophic event occurs. In fact, the most prophetic comment recently may have been issued by a L.A.P.D. officer who was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, “We have 18 officers in the Northeast Division to hold the line in case anything happens and that is not a lot to cover an area of roughly 30 miles... if something does happen over a wide area there will be an even thinner blue line. That is why you have to depend on yourselves to come up with contingency plans. You can’t be vigilantes running around but you must be prepared.”
Preparedness is the key, not only for this year, but for the future as well. There is a serious danger that everyone’s focus will be on the short-term consequences of the King/Denny Trials. But to effectively safeguard the future, everyone must focus on the long term needs and solutions for their businesses and communities.
Mary L. Carrido is founder and President of MLC & Associates.
This article adapted from Vol. 6 #3.