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CAMPAIGN 2000

Shadow of '92 Riots Shapes LAPD Stance on Protests

August 11, 2000|BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Long before the Democrats settled on the site of next week's national convention, LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks had decided whom he wanted to oversee security, if Los Angeles won the right to host the event.

The chief's man had spent seven years running the Police Department's Special Weapons and Tactics unit, an elite group known more for confronting--and sometimes shooting--armed suspects than for community relations. This is a man who has coordinated about 500 local crises. This is a man known to his peers as a quick and pragmatic decision-maker--in other words, the quintessential SWAT officer.

So Los Angeles got the convention, and Cmdr. Tom Lorenzen, 50, got the security job.

Lorenzen seized the challenge, viewing it--as do many officers he selected for his team--as an opportunity to salvage the Los Angeles Police Department's tarnished reputation. These officers know the world will be watching as they respond to the upcoming, potentially violent, street demonstrations.

While protesters facing police in coming days may be fighting what has been called the Battle of Los Angeles 2000, many officers--including Lorenzen and his team--will be trying to redeem the recent, calamitous history of the LAPD.

The 1992 riots were their Vietnam. They won't let it happen again.

"I said then that if I'm ever in a position to change what went on there, I would," Lorenzen said. "Well, here I am."

Several of his handpicked sergeants and other officers strongly echo those sentiments.

"I made up my mind in '92 that I would never be part of anything like that again--I'll quit," said Sgt. Greg Baltad, a former Metro Division officer who worked for Lorenzen and now serves as his assistant officer in charge. "We had become so concerned about public opinion that we failed to do what we were required to do. . . . This is our opportunity."

"My biggest nightmare," added Sgt. Dennis Quiles, who worked for Lorenzen once before, "would be another 54th [Street] and Arlington [Avenue]." He was referring to the site of the '92 riot command post set up by officers: It was woefully short on communications equipment, which hampered their efforts to respond. "I would retire the next day. I couldn't handle that."

A Dark Moment in History of LAPD

What these officers, and others in the LAPD's convention planning unit, can't forget are the hours and hours of waiting and watching as rioters destroyed sections of the city, while no orders came from Parker Center for the police to respond.

It was one of the darkest moments in the department's history, stemming from a jury's acquittal of four LAPD officers on state charges in the Rodney G. King beating. The flash point of the riots was the beating of truck driver Reginald O. Denny, pulled from the cab of his big rig by a mob at Florence and Normandie avenues in South-Central Los Angeles.

Scores of police, armed and many in riot gear, remained stationed nearby but were not immediately called in. Ultimately, the civil unrest cost then-Police Chief Daryl F. Gates his job, left a sorely disillusioned department and tore the community apart.

Since then, however, other problems have plagued the department, which earlier in this century was regarded as the nation's most dishonest urban law enforcement agency but then was dramatically transformed into a model for police around the world.

Most recently, it has been rocked by a new corruption scandal, which was first uncovered in the Rampart Division's anti-gang unit and later spread to other stations. Officers have been found to have covered up unjustified shootings, intimidated witnesses and planted evidence, among other offenses. The U.S. Department of Justice is threatening to sue the city, alleging that the department has engaged in a "pattern or practice" of civil rights violations.

"We are beat to pieces," Baltad said, describing morale. "This is as low as we've been since maybe the corruption problems in the '30s. We have young officers who have never been able to feel good about the department."

Add to that another unknown, even to the top LAPD commanders: How will the mostly demoralized rank-and-file officers respond to potential trouble? Of the officers expected to be on the streets during the convention, in fact, most were hired after police beat King. On average, they have less than six years of experience with the LAPD.

Some police commissioners, department officials and other local politicians question whether this young police force will over- or under-react if it is faced with a belligerent crowd and orders are given from the top.

"Do we have a young work force that's relatively inexperienced with crowd control?" Lorenzen said. "Is that somewhat of a concern for us? Yes."

Even Parks acknowledges that he commands "a young department" but says he believes these officers have received solid training to prepare for next week's possible problems.

Parks also thinks the convention, which opens Monday, could be a chance for his department to shine.

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