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Criticism Over Use of Force Inhibited Police, Gates Says : Law enforcement: The chief also says that high-ranking officers made tactical errors and failed to implement longstanding plans for dealing with unrest.

May 07, 1992|RICHARD A. SERRANO and TED ROHRLICH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

He noted that the day before the riots broke out, he was criticized by City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and others for allegedly trying to incite trouble by disclosing that he had set aside $1 million in the police overtime account as a contingency.

Although Gates was critical of his department's response to the riots, he said it must be viewed in the broader context of the relentless criticisms suffered by the LAPD during the last year.

"They have pushed us and pushed us and pushed us," he said of the detractors. "So we have turned to community-oriented policing. . . . That's the watchword. Don't use force.

"I know police officers on the street are scared to death to use any kind of force because they think they're gong to be second-guessed," he added. "It doesn't impact me, because . . . I'm retiring. But for those who have their careers to think about, they're looking at what has been said we ought to do, and that's the soft approach to policing."

The department's leaders were "constantly barraged by politicians telling them to make sure that they don't overrespond," he said. "And I have a feeling that that impaired their ability to do what we know we're supposed to do. And that's move in aggressively and stop the thing."

Police spokesman Gil, who said Gates did not want to be interviewed by The Times, insisted, like the chief, that the department took the prospect of violence seriously and had held a series of strategy sessions.

One of the sessions, according to a participant who asked not to be named, occurred April 10 at Parker Center for all patrol area commanders. Assistant Chief Vernon told them to prepare for several potentially violent events, including repercussions from the King verdict. Other potentially violent events discussed at the time included a planned Communist Party rally in MacArthur Park, planned anti-abortion demonstrations and earthquakes.

One ranking officer, who was present, said the department seemed to be making an effort to talk about several possibly violent events together--not just post-verdict riots--to avoid being accused of inciting unrest.

"There was a tremendous degree of concern that we would be the precipitators of this incident, because if (it was known that) we were getting ready for a riot, we could be (accused of) instigating one," the captain said.

Vernon reportedly told them to inspect their inventories of weapons and ammunition, update their lists of officers' home phone numbers in case of a departmentwide mobilization and review special tactics outlined in the department manual--such as squad formations.

The assistant chief also provided commanders with lists of the gun stores in their jurisdictions and directed that they be made aware that they could become looting targets.

Although meetings and training exercises were held in anticipation of the King verdicts, no departmentwide contingency plan was drafted for the possibility of rioting. Instead, officers were told to rely on their respective station's tactical manual, which cover responses for natural disasters and other major emergencies.

In contrast, the Sheriff's Department updated its own contingency plans for civil disorder just three weeks ago, Sheriff Block said late Wednesday.

He said the department's field operations staff assembled a 9 1/2-page contingency plan two weeks before the King verdicts. The plan was called "Operation Monarch," a play on the last name of LAPD beating victim Rodney G. King.

Although he declined to discuss the specific contents of his plan, Block said that a similar effort would have been crucial to the LAPD's efforts to maintain order.

"The first question I would ask is was there a plan?" he said. "A plan is important, otherwise you lose control. It's the difference between sending a SWAT team in and sending in 10 officers in radio cars. There are so many details you have to consider."

Lt. Bruce Ward, head of the LAPD's tactical planning section, said that even if a major preparation plan had been drawn up, the violence swept so fast through the city that police still would have been caught off guard.

"It was such an incredible problem and so widespread that it was very difficult to catch to it," he said. "And it happened so quickly."

Another of the lingering controversies surrounding the Police Department's initial response to the riots focuses on what fire officials say was a failure to provide police escorts for firefighters, who were coming under violent attack. The Times reported Wednesday that fire officials were "furious" because units could not get police protection, even though many officers appeared to be idle and available at a South Los Angeles command post.

In a letter to Mayor Bradley on Wednesday, Fire Commission President James E. Blancarte complained that "in a significant number of cases" firefighters and paramedics were left unprotected, with some becoming "victims of violent attacks."

"The non-deployment of police officers," he said, "severely compromised this department's overall ability to respond to major fire and rescue emergencies."

Times staff writers Stephen Braun, Leslie Berger, Kenneth Reich and Santiago O'Donnell contributed to this report.

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