It was 25 years ago Saturday that violence exploded across Los Angeles in reaction to the verdicts in the police beating of Rodney King.
In advance of the grim anniversary, the bell atop City Hall tolled 63 times, a solemn remembrance of the number of lives that were lost in the Los Angeles riots 25 years ago when sections of the city exploded into violence and mayhem.
Whether you call the violence riots, civil unrest or something else, city leaders remembered the events with a consistent message: Much has changed, and much work still needs to be done.
“My thoughts every time this significant anniversary comes is, what’s left to do. I think incontrovertibly, we are better off but we are not where we need to be,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said.
“We still have corners of the city that remain vacant and undeveloped, we still have double-digit unemployment in certain communities, and we still have the potential for violence or divide between the police and the community because of one rouge cop or a mistake that’s made. But I feel like our resilience pushes us through.”
The City Hall bell tolled Friday as city employees filtered out into the streets for a “Hands Around City Hall” ceremony meant to convey racial and cultural harmony one block from where some of the violence erupted — outside Parker Center, the former headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department.
An angry crowd gathered outside the building the night of April 29, 1992, throwing rocks and setting fire to a parking kiosk before overturning a police car.
The anger was fueled by the acquittal that day of four LAPD police officers in the Lake View Terrace beating of motorist Rodney King, a confrontation that received worldwide publicity due to it being videotaped by a nearby resident and broadcast on the evening news.
As the tape was played and replayed by the media in the 14 months to follow, many who viewed it — and certainly to many in the black community in South Los Angeles — deemed the officers to be clearly guilty, caught red- handed brutalizing a helpless black man with their batons and feet.
But to 12 jurors in Simi Valley, the officers were innocent of wrongdoing and allowed to walk free.
The rage in the black community toward the LAPD was long-simmering and far from being limited to the Rodney King beating, dating back to well before the 1965 Watts riots, which were also fueled by allegations against the department of racism and brutality.
Within hours of the acquittals, fires were breaking out across the city and Reginald Denny, a white truck driver, was beaten mercilessly at the corner of Florence and Normandie avenues on live television. The LAPD was nowhere in sight, sending a message to anyone considering joining the lawlessness that it was open season and that the cops were not going to try to stop it.
Twenty-five years later, the carnage that was wrought in the city, and the sweeping changes to the LAPD that came after, are well-known, having been exhumed and turned over each time the calendar hits April 29.
Aside from the deaths, 2,000 people were injured and more than 1,000 buildings were destroyed by fires in violence that lasted for six days and resulted in the National Guard being called in to restore order.
LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, who had led the department since 1978, stepped down a few months after the riots and is widely viewed as the man most responsible for the mayhem, after bringing a military mentality to policing that left minority communities feeling brutalized.
Gates also was criticized for a slow response to the initial outbreak of violence and for pulling his officers from key areas where the unrest was starting, including Florence and Normandie, allowing the violence to spread.
“The LAPD in 1992 was very much of a military mindset. They were more functioning from the standpoint of an occupying army as opposed to the motto to protect and serve,” Matt Johnson, president of the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners, told City News Service.
Other changes came to the LAPD. Police chiefs were given term limits. The Office of the Inspector General was formed to audit investigations and conduct reviews of the disciplinary system. In the wake of the Rampart corruption scandal, the department entered a consent decree in 2000 under which the U.S. Department of Justice oversaw the LAPD for five years.
Perhaps most significantly, the department adopted a community policing approach, under which officers who patrol neighborhoods work closely with key organizations and community leaders to build trust and increase communication.
“I think that the core belief in the mission has changed in the police department — that police officers now see themselves as people that build community and as people that are part of the community, as people that reflect the diversity of the community, where in 1992 and years prior I think those things were not always true,” LAPD Chief Charlie Beck told CNS.
Crime and unemployment have also plunged since the riots, but troubling signs still remain.
A new Loyola Marymount University poll found that six in 10 Angelenos think another riot is likely in the next five years, the highest that sentiment has been in 20 years. A UCLA study released this week found that neighborhoods in South L.A., Koreatown and Westlake have not seen economic improvements since the riots and in some cases have gotten worse.
Studies over the past few years have also found that L.A. is one of the least affordable major cities in the country, with rent prices that are sky- rocketing due to a housing shortage.
Fueling some of the belief about future riots is the increased focus nationwide on the shootings of black males by police since the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 led to days of civil unrest there and criticism of police forces being equipped with military-grade weaponry.
In Los Angeles, the weekly meetings of the Board of Police Commissioners features a group of activists who routinely express rage and hatred at the department over officer-involved shootings.
Beck was dismissive of the group and the suggestion they could represent a larger discontent with the LAPD among some residents.
“It’s the same people though, 30 or 40 people,” Beck said. “You are talking about a very small group of people who are at the Police Commission every single week. I don’t know that I or any chief could ever satisfy them.”
Johnson, who leads the civilian board that oversees the department, said he sees an LAPD always looking to improve.
“I think police departments generally do well on the `to protect’ part and they forget about the `to serve’ part. And I think our department today is much more dedicated to the serve part,” he said. “It’s almost not fair to compare today to where the department was 25 years ago. This is a totally different department, not to say that there isn’t work to be done and improvements to be made.”
Garcetti said the city and LAPD are always on the hunt to improve tactics and pointed to the recently approved policy by the Police Commission that gives a new priority for de-escalation techniques as proof.
“Policing is a tough business, we ask them to put themselves in violent and difficult situations, and any large organization won’t have 100 percent of people who do it perfectly,” Garcetti said. “With that said, Los Angeles never rests on its laurels, and for the people who are unhappy about the present, they should be joining up to work on the future, which I think they are.”
—City News Service
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