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."
Nonetheless, Sheinbaum said the initial deployment of officers Wednesday night will be investigated, particularly the "critical question" of why police did not respond to the first scenes of violence captured by television cameras.
Police Chief-designate Willie L. Williams also appeared to come to Gates' defense, saying that putting more police officers on the street before the King verdicts might have "aggravated the situation."
"Based on the history of this country," Williams said on NBC's "Today Show," "massive police presence has usually not helped in the early stages."
But authorities in Miami--one of the few other major U.S. cities where widespread rioting has occurred in the last decade--disputed Williams' assertion, insisting that quick, forceful police action is the only way to quell a major disturbance. Miami police say they learned that lesson in 1980 during the infamous Liberty City riot that claimed 18 lives and was prompted by police beating a motorcyclist to death.
In 1982 and 1989, when other Miami officers went on trial for the controversial slayings of ethnic minorities, police began restricting access to and from potentially troublesome neighborhoods days before each verdict was announced. They put all officers on 12-hour shifts and canceled vacations. Half of the department's detectives, meanwhile, donned uniforms and hit the streets to help out.
The strategy was deemed effective despite some violence. In 1982, two people were killed following announcement of the verdict; in 1989, one person died.
Miami's Metro-Dade Police Department, meanwhile, creates temporary "mobile field forces" to deal with such incidents. More than 400 riot-equipped officers can be organized and deployed within one hour of any emergency.
"We try to get in there as quickly as we can and stop it from spreading," said Lt. Angel Nieves of Metro-Dade's Tactical Operations Section. "If you don't do anything, it gets bigger and bigger to the point where you're not going to have enough officers to control it."
Cmdr. Ronald Banks, who was in charge of the 550 LAPD officers assigned to the riot area Thursday, said Miami's strategy of mobilizing in anticipation of a controversial verdict would be impractical in Los Angeles. He said authorities here had no certain knowledge that rioting would occur.
The cost of deploying the entire Police Department beforehand, Banks said, would have been prohibitive and possibly wasteful, because there probably would have been no rioting had the officers accused of beating King been found guilty.
In addition, Banks said, Los Angeles' size argues against an advance mobilization.
"Had we known (the trouble) was going to occur in South-Central Los Angeles first . . . that's very easy," he said. "But there's a tremendous difference in the demographics of Los Angeles as compared to Miami."
In Miami, Banks said, "they pretty well know where it's going to start. Even if you targeted South-Central Los Angeles, it's expansive enough not to know where you were going to put up your command post."
The first officers to arrive at the scene at Florence and Normandie set a tone for the LAPD's early response to the riot--retreat.
"Our units that responded initially were assaulted," Banks said. "Windows were broken out of their police cars. Several received minor injuries. They were basically overwhelmed. They did as their training dictated because they were outnumbered. They retreated.
"We were not going to go back and be taken hostage or incur more injuries until we had sufficient personnel," Banks said.
Yet while the LAPD is now fully mobilized, the violence still remains out of control.
"We don't have enough people," Banks said grimly.
Staff writers Rich Connell, Cheryl Brownstein-Santiago, Amy Pyle and Daniel M. Weintraub contributed to this story.