Where were the police?
That was the question that many in Los Angeles, including members of the city's Police Department, were asking Thursday in the aftermath of televised beatings, burning and looting that raged for hours in South Los Angeles before officers made any attempt to stop it.
Even Chief Daryl F. Gates, who insisted beforehand that the LAPD was ready for "any emergency situation," conceded that his officers were overwhelmed by how quickly the crisis developed and were "much too slow" to respond.
"I asked the same question: Where were the police?" Gates told reporters. "We moved in with substantial numbers but not with the numbers needed to handle the situation."
Gates speculated, however, that had LAPD officers not retreated when rioting first flared, they might have incited even greater violence.
But as the chief sought to defend his actions, the crisis demonstrated the grave difficulties encountered by the Police Department in the first hours of the worst urban turmoil in Los Angeles since the 1965 Watts riots.
Indeed, nearly 2,000 National Guard members were activated by Gov. Pete Wilson on Wednesday evening, with nearly all in place at armories by 8 a.m. Thursday and ready to hit the streets, according to Guard officials. But none were deployed until late afternoon, LAPD field commanders said.
By Thursday night, the total number of requested guard members reached 6,000.
Wilson said that police commanders apparently were slow to decide how to best use the troops. Delays were also encountered, he said, as guardsmen obtained necessary equipment, especially ammunition.
Police commanders countered that they had a plan to use the guardsmen to help secure a perimeter around the worst riot areas, a move they said would free more police officers to arrest looters and arsonists.
The Guard troops also were expected to be stationed around the city to secure stores after police chased off looters.
It was commonplace Thursday to see looters return to stores after being dispersed by police, who were forced to leave after a short time to answer other calls.
Unlike other large police departments that have learned to take substantial precautions when facing similar situations, the LAPD waited until after verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating trial were announced at 3:15 p.m. Wednesday before fully mobilizing.
By then, the majority of the force's more than 1,000 detectives--who normally get off work about 2:30 p.m.--had gone home and needed to be recalled to reinforce beleaguered patrol officers.
At 6:30 p.m., as angry demonstrators began gathering outside police headquarters and TV stations began to air scenes of violence near Florence and Normandie avenues, Gates declared that his officers were dealing with the situation "calmly, maturely, professionally."
He then drove to a Brentwood reception and fund-raiser for the campaign against Charter Amendment F, a police reform ballot measure.
On Thursday, Gates said his presence at the event did not hinder the LAPD's response to the mounting crisis in South Los Angeles because "not a great deal had broken out at that time." He said he remained at the event for "a very, very short period"--about 20 minutes. Gates returned to the city's Emergency Response Center between 8:30 p.m. and 9 p.m.
By that time, television viewers around the country had been watching small mobs drag motorists from their vehicles and beat them near Florence and Normandie avenues without any attempt by police to stop the violence or rescue the victims.
Even when it became clear that the LAPD apparently could not muster the manpower to put down the unfolding unrest, officers made no apparent attempts to barricade streets or otherwise keep unsuspecting motorists out of harm's way.
"It is absolutely inexcusable for the Police Department not to have cordoned off major streets and reroute traffic," said one LAPD detective, Zvonko G. (Bill) Pavelic. "They took no action to defuse the situation and stop citizens from becoming victims."
Others in Los Angeles accused Gates of purposely delaying the deployment of officers in the first critical hours of the crisis.
"It's his revenge against the people who are trying to put him out of office," said Craig Freis, a candidate for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
But two of Gates' harshest critics on the Police Commission, President Stanley K. Sheinbaum and Vice President Jesse Brewer, said Thursday that the chief had handled the situation as well as possible.
"He's doing the best he can," said Brewer, a former LAPD assistant chief.
Sheinbaum said the department had prepared for possible unrest but that the rioting exposed how thin the 7,900-officer LAPD has become. He stressed that Gates "doesn't have the resources to do what needs to be done."