Blame for the Los Angeles Police Department's sluggish reaction to last week's fiery riots moved toward the higher reaches of the agency Thursday--including Chief Daryl F. Gates--as key LAPD officials and others said command-level breakdowns hampered besieged street officers.
In his first interview since the unrest, Deputy Chief Matthew V. Hunt, who commands officers in South Los Angeles, confirmed that he pressed Gates for greater preparations before the verdicts but that the chief rebuffed him, saying it was unnecessary.
When the violence erupted, Hunt said, officers in the field were overwhelmed. Hunt said he and his subordinates did the best they could to stem the mayhem but that the department was ill-prepared.
"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."
Among other things, he said, conditions at the hastily assembled command post near the riot's flash point in South Los Angeles were a "nightmare." 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.
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."
Gates refused to be interviewed by The Times. But in an interview broadcast on CNN he said the department's response to the riots was "totally mishandled, totally mishandled."
Beyond Hunt's revelations, the department 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 are losing public support and criticized them for slow response to the rioting. "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. But other high-ranking police officials disputed this.
* William Violante, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, angrily criticized the police command staff, which he said bent to the wishes of politicians and was reluctant to move aggressively when the riots broke out because they feared they would be second-guessed by angry citizens. "There were officers standing by and they were called off," he said. "And it seems to me to be a problem with political interference."
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 guarantees 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 Police Department 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, however, that scores of officers were standing around the South Los Angeles command post while blazes raged and firefighters were pleading for escorts. At the same time, officers in divisions relatively untouched by the rioting were waiting hours to be dispatched to trouble spots. This went on for two nights, according to knowledgeable officers.
"The first night, I could understand it was difficult to pull together," said a policeman in the Pacific Division. "But the second night was the biggest joke."
The Fire Commission has asked for an investigation.
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 added that his department has yet to evaluate whether the Police Department's conduct led 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 could be costly, he said.
"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 African Methodist Episcopal 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."
The nerve center for citywide police response to the riots was the Emergency Command Center in the City Hall East basement. Deputy Chief Ron Frankle, who ran the operation during the early hours of the unrest, defended his actions, saying that the scene was hectic but not out of control.
"It was busy, busy, busy," he said. "We're talking about adrenalin pumping, you bet. . . . We were taking in huge amounts of information and trying to assemble it as fast as we could. We were working as fast as we could."
Exactly how extensively the department planned for the possibility of civil unrest after 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 a 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 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 would have allowed police to respond only to emergencies and commanders to keep officers beyond their shifts--was not called until nearly four hours after the verdicts were announced, a delay that some officers say significantly slowed the LAPD's ability to muster its forces. For one thing, hundreds of officers on day shifts had been allowed to go home.
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 he announced his retirement, said he had crafted a specific contingency plan to go into effect if a riot erupted, including the declaration of a tactical alert as soon as a verdict came in.
Deputy Chief Frankle, who had assumed Vernon's duties as the top commander of field officers, said "that's news to me" when asked about his predecessor's statement that the department had planned an immediate tactical alert.
He said each of the 18 patrol divisions underwent some refresher training for their officers and that the elite Metro unit was upgraded with more than 50 additional officers while SWAT units were drilled at isolated locations in the Angeles National Forest.
"You do all these things whenever you think you're going to have a major event," he said.
An area captain who spoke on condition of anonymity also disputed Vernon's assertion about a tactical alert, saying: "That's baloney."
Times staff writers Ted Rohrlich and Richard A. Serrano contributed to this report.
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Dispatched to Duty
Here is a look at some of the law enforcement personnel and troops who have been deployed or await deployment as of 5 p.m. Thursday:
LAPD: 3,639 deployed
CHP: 500 (200 to 250 officers deployed at any one time)
Sheriff's Dept.: Not available due to security concerns.
National Guard: 9,844
1,700 deployed on street
2,460 support staff
5,684 in staging areas
Federal troops: 3,313
Army: Ft. Ord, 1,769
Marines: Camp Pendleton, 1,544
Compiled by Times researcher Michael Meyers