By Edwin Folven, 4/26/2012
Level of Violence and Looting Was a Surprise
The magnitude of the civil unrest that erupted during the Los Angeles Riots in 1992 took law enforcement officials by surprise, according to former Los Angeles Police Department Chief Bernard Parks, who was a deputy chief at the time.
Parks said police lost valuable time in responding to the rioting because a tactical alert was not issued by then-Police Chief Daryl Gates immediately after the four Los Angeles police officers accused in the beating of motorist Rodney King were found not guilty. He acknowledged, however, that the civil unrest was fueled by anger that had long been brewing in the city, and said that anger was driven by a public perception about how minorities were treated by police in the years prior to the L.A. Riots.
Parks, who spent 38 years with the LAPD and served as chief of police from 1997 to 2002, is now in his third term as a Los Angeles City Councilmember representing the 8th District, which encompasses portions of South Los Angeles that experienced violence and looting. Parks was in charge of the LAPD’s Central Bureau when the riots occurred, and said the LAPD command staff at the time did not have indications there would be such an outpouring of condemnation over the verdict, and ultimately violence and looting. In the weeks prior, Parks said authorities met with leaders in the African American community and other civic groups in an attempt to gauge what the reaction may be if the four officers accused of beating King were found not guilty.
“As far as being prepared, police department protocols were in place, and had they given a tactical alert, we would have been prepared for twelve-hour shifts,” Parks said. “We would have kept officers from the day shift on into the night, and the issue of being overwhelmed could have basically been reduced.”
Parks did not issue any blame for the lapse in time in issuing the tactical alert, saying authorities went forward based on the information that had been gathered. He claimed that nobody knew things would spiral out of control so quickly across the city.
“It was a surprise. Had we anticipated problems, the first thing that would have occurred is we would have gone to tactical alert,” Parks said. “There was no evidence, from my standpoint, that it would end up in the circumstance it did.”
Parks also said he was surprised by people involved in the rioting targeting businesses, both in their own communities and in other parts of the city. Hundreds of stores were looted or burned, including businesses such as Samy’s Camera on La Brea Avenue. Parks said some of his most vivid memories of the civil unrest include televised footage of members of the Korean community taking up arms at businesses along Wilshire Boulevard, and added that he was also shocked by the images of the beating of Reginald Denny at Florence and Normandie Avenues, and the burning of a large supermarket near 3rd and Alvarado Streets. Parks said he worked through the first night of rioting at Parker Center, LAPD headquarters at the time, and witnessed the protests in front of the building and the burning of police vehicles. After working for more than 24-hours straight, Parks said he drove down Vermont Avenue and witnessed first-hand the damage that had occurred.
“One block after another was ablaze,” Parks added. “There was a lot of graphic video and film that showed what occurred. When you got close to mid-town, there was a lot of looting. That took up most of the resources of West Bureau (which had jurisdiction over the Wilshire and Hollywood Divisions). The big surprise was the looters and the spontaneity of how much of the city went up.”
Parks said he understands the anger that had built up in the community prior to the riots was based on the misconduct of some members of the police force. He described the King beating as “unacceptable”, and said the department at the time did not have a strong enough policy for addressing officer misconduct. In 1992, supervisors, such as sergeants at the individual police stations, were allowed to determine whether complaints logged against officers should be investigated, and a lot of the time, the complaints were dismissed. Parks said one of the first changes he implemented after becoming chief in 1997 was an officer accountability program, in which every complaint that is logged is investigated, and officers who have a large number of complaints are heavily scrutinized, and sometimes blocked from being promoted. Approximately 140 officers were later terminated for misconduct after the accountability program was implemented.
Parks said the way officer misconduct is now handled has led to more trust in the community, and credits that policy, and more outreach to the community, for improving relations.
“We have expanded the community focus, basically to integrate the public directly with the chief of police, citywide,” Parks said. “And we have reduced the tolerance of any misconduct by officers.”
Parks added that he is still working on building relationships between law enforcement and the community through his work on the city council.
“I think things have gotten better, because if you don’t evolve, you end up with a situation where you begin to digress,” Parks said. “[We are in] in a constantly evolving state of working to build better relationships in the community. Looking back on policy changes, you are able to see things from an uninhibited point of view.”