Blame for the Los Angeles Police Department's failure to react swiftly to last week's riots appeared to be moving toward the higher reaches of the agency Thursday as key LAPD officials and others said breakdowns at the command level hampered embattled street officers.
In his first interview since the unrest, Deputy Chief Matthew V. Hunt, who commands officers in South Los Angeles, said he and his subordinates did the best they could to stem the spreading violence but that the department simply was ill-prepared.
Hunt said he pressed Police Chief Daryl F. Gates for greater preparations prior to the verdicts but that the chief rebuffed him. As a result, Hunt said, the department was not properly prepared or equipped, and officers in the field were overwhelmed by the exploding violence.
He described a "nightmare" of frustrations and chaos at a hastily assembled command post near the flash point of the rioting as the nation watched televised broadcasts of the looting and arson. Phones could not be hooked up. There was no police computer in the "archaic" command-post truck when it arrived.
More than 100 officers were dropped off by bus, he said, but could not be deployed because they had no transportation. There also were difficulties getting officers formed into squads with leaders.
"I was going out of my mind," Hunt said. "We were just not prepared to deal with something with this magnitude in a very, very short time."
Hunt declined to discuss any of his discussion with Gates about the need for intensified planning or his conversations that afternoon and evening. He did say he placed a 4:30 p.m. call to the chief--one hour after the verdicts--but declined to give details.
"I certainly can account for my actions and my involvement," Hunt said. "I'm prepared to stand up and be counted."
Beyond Hunt's revelations, the LAPD came under fire on other fronts Thursday for its response to the violence that claimed nearly 60 lives and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage:
- L.A. Fire Chief Donald Manning, in a report to the Fire Commission, bitterly complained that police dismissed Fire Department requests for protection during the outbreak of the riots as "not a top priority," delaying Fire Department responses to fires. "There was gridlock" on getting police protection, Manning said.
- In unusual public remarks, State Supreme Court Justice Armand Arabian warned Thursday that Los Angeles police were losing public support and criticized them for a slow response to rioting that swept the city. "Where was the protection and service?," he asked. "Any slower response and we would have seen photos of policemen pasted on milk containers and listed as missing."
- Assistant Chief Robert L. Vernon, who was on vacation when the riots erupted, said Wednesday there had been extensive preparations before the riots that, had the plans been followed, could have helped police in responding to the burgeoning looting and arson. "Things should have gone right," he said.
Some of the most pointed criticisms of the Police Department on Thursday came from Fire Chief Manning in his first public remarks on the controversy. During a meeting of the Fire Commission, he said the LAPD failed to come through on its assurances that it would protect firefighters.
"We were assured by the Police Department," he said, "that plans were in place . . . that we would have escorts and that if there weren't barricaded suspects and there weren't snipers, we were their next priority."
But Manning said the promises were broken. He compared the LAPD to "a lending agency assuring that you're going to get a loan before escrow closes and then not giving it to you."
Gates, in defending his officers, has attributed their slow response to the need to protect firefighters from rioters. The Times reported this week that fire officials were furious because blazes raged, but engines were backed up at the South Los Angeles command post because police escorts could not be obtained, even though officers appeared to be standing around.
The Fire Commission has asked for an investigation of the police escort problem.
Even when fire engines were being pelted with rocks and bottles, an LAPD captain refused a request by a battalion chief for police escorts. "He was told that was not their top priority," Manning told the commission. "They would not let him get close to the top police person."
As fire engines waited at the command post while fires burned out of control, Battalion Chief Tim Manning--the chief's son--made another request for police escorts and was again denied.
"We had to have escorts, and there was a gridlock on getting that," said Donald Manning, who said his department has yet to evaluate whether the Police Department's conduct lead to unnecessary injuries and damage.
Finally escorts were provided sometime after 9 p.m., but only after Manning said he dispatched his top assistant with a "very pointed" message to police officials in the City Hall emergency operations center. In addition, Deputy Fire Chief Davis Parsons reached Deputy Chief Hunt, the top-ranking police official at the South Los Angeles command post.
Hunt acknowledged that there were problems in deploying the escorts and said the cause is being reviewed as part of the investigation.
Hunt said it was partially a lack of funds that made LAPD officials reluctant to fully gear up for problems, particularly when so many thought that across-the-board not guilty verdicts were unlikely. Holding all day watch officers, for example, could be costly.
"It was a money thing to a degree," he said.
Hunt had been at a rally of religious, civic and political leaders at the First AME Church, where officials were urging calm, when he learned of the now-infamous televised beatings at Florence and Normandie avenues at about 6:45 p.m.
He said he immediately phoned the command post and ordered units into the intersection. He said he did not yet know whether they attempted to send units, and the matter is a focus of the investigation.
Hunt said he requested mobilization of the police force and bringing in the National Guard shortly after he learned of the motorists being beaten at Normandie and Florence avenues, the riot's flash point, where mobs brutally assaulted motorists, including truck driver Reginald O. Denny.
He said he made the requests to the Emergency Operations Center by telephone and radio even before reaching the command post. Some requests were granted, he said, but the responses from the central command center were frustratingly slow.
At the command post, he said a series of problems resulted in "inability to move people and equipment in a coordinated manner."
"It was very difficult to build up to the numbers (of officers) and equipment that was necessary to rapidly deploy to a whole lot of different locations.
"That's something that's been lost in all of this. We were spread extremely thin right across the board because of the number of incidents."
Exactly how extensively the department planned for the possibility of civil unrest in the wake of the Rodney G. King verdicts is the focus of a Police Commission investigation that, among other things, will examine contingency plans and Gates' departure from police headquarters for political fund-raiser in Brentwood as the riots exploded.
Police Commission President Stanley K. Sheinbaum had expected a briefing from Gates on Thursday, but that was postponed because the department was still gathering information.
Besides Gates, a number of top level police commanders were absent when the disturbances began. Among them was Assistant Chief Vernon, who had announced his retirement and was taking vacation time.
In an interview Thursday, Vernon said there were extensive preparations for coping with possible unrest after the King verdicts that included calling an immediate citywide police alert "as soon as the verdicts came down."
But records and interviews show a tactical alert--which allows commanders to begin garnering resources and mobilizing officers--was not called until nearly three hours after the verdicts were announced, a delay that some officers say significantly slowed the LAPD's ability to muster its forces.
Vernon said he does not know why the plan was not actuated, especially because it had been rehearsed well before the riots.
"We started practicing (simulated alerts) months ago and in the last two weeks before the riot we were doing that literally every day," Vernon said. "We'd call them at different times of the day. Sometimes, we'd call them at 3 in the morning, sometimes 7 in the evening. . . ."
Vernon, the department's assistant chief in charge of field operations until his retirement less than a week before the verdicts, said he had crafted a specific contingency plan to go into effect if a riot erupted.
As soon as the verdicts came in, Vernon said, a citywide tactical alert was to go into effect.
In a tactical alert, only police work of major importance is to be undertaken. Patrol cars, for example, are to handle only emergencies. Watch commanders in the various divisions are to hold over officers onto the next shift unless they get word from the communications division that they are free to send their officers home.
Vernon said his plan was not followed for reasons that are not clear.
When The verdict in the King trial was announced over live television at 3:15 p.m. But a citywide tactical alert was not declared until 6:55 p.m.--10 minutes after the nation watched sand-and-gravel truck driver Denny beaten nearly to death at the intersection of Florence and Normandie. By then, hundreds of officers on day shifts had been allowed to go home.
Vernon said he told the captains and deputy chiefs at the April meeting to identify places in their districts where guns and ammunition were stored, because those places, along with liquor stores, would be likely targets of rioters,
He said the plan also called for field commanders of each station to produce a list of available personnel as soon as a tactical alert went into effect.
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