AFTER THE RIOTS: THE SEARCH FOR ANSWERS : Justice in the 4th Dimension : Trials: 'Unusual Occurrence' enters the legal language as courts and attorneys scramble to process suspects charged in riot-related incidents. Improvisation pays off throughout the system.


On booking forms, with which 15,000-plus arrestees have been shoveled into Los Angeles County's criminal justice system, police added a two-letter notation: "U.O."--short for "Unusual Occurrence."

Nothing could better describe what happened throughout that confused and overwhelmed system over the last week.

Unusual Occurrences. Judges, jailers, prosecutors and defenders joining to plan round-the-clock weekend arraignment courts. Secretaries using fill-in-the-blank forms, rather than computers, to file criminal charges in the district attorney's office. Prosecutors and defenders haggling over the appropriate sentence for thousands of people arrested merely for curfew violations--"like the stock exchange reaching a price," as one judge described it--before courts made a 10-day jail term the norm for the offense.

Then there was the ACLU lawyer touring county jail facilities, stuffed with 3,000 more inmates than ever before, 1,000 above court-mandated limits--and then the lawyer, the ACLU lawyer, praising the Sheriff's Department for "doing a pretty good job in this kind of an environment."

Unusual occurrences. Frantic negotiations to get emergency legislation out of Sacramento to extend arraignment deadlines, a process that saw Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner turn to a beleaguered Daryl F. Gates to make the crucial plea to Gov. Pete Wilson. Why? Simple politics: "If I had called," noted Reiner, a Democrat, "he probably would have spent 12 hours figuring out if I was trying to trick him."

Soon Wilson was playing a scene out of "Casablanca," rushing onto the Tarmac off a runway at foggy Santa Monica Airport to sign the bill that would keep thousands of accused looters in jail.

Then there was the startling realization of Thursday, when officials faced a new midnight deadline for processing all the riot suspects: There weren't the hordes left to be charged that everyone had thought. Someone had miscalculated. By thousands.

"The numbers don't add up," declared Reiner, a conclusion that surprised no one after all the Los Angeles criminal justice system had gone through. "They really don't add up."

There were two reasons for a special code on booking forms.

When the dust clears, all sorts of numbers guys will want their shot at making sense of the Riots of '92. Police statisticians, sociologists, newspaper computer types--all will want to know which cases stemmed from the civil unrest.

The other reason?

"Money," explained one participant in an early meeting. "In crises like this, there usually are special (government) appropriations. The earlier you keep track of the money spent. . . ."

Presiding Judge Aviva K. Bobb called the crisis meeting a week ago this afternoon, drawing 30 managers from court-related agencies to her Los Angeles Municipal Court conference room. Courtrooms were closed because of the riots, but with arrest totals rising by the minute, "we knew (the cases) would be converging," Bobb said.

Norm Shapiro, who supervises the filing of felony cases for the district attorney's office, said his people leaned toward putting "R.R." on their forms, for Riot-Related.

"U.O." was preferred by police. "A little softer sounding," one prosecutor noted.

Everyone was agreed, however, on another strategy: They'd need to hold arraignments all weekend to begin processing the looters, curfew violators and the like.

Larry Trapp, a deputy district attorney, suggested another way to speed things up: Bypass the computers, so they wouldn't have to "input" all the information required to file charges by microchip. Go back to paper-pushing, in other words.

They assumed the felonies "most in demand" would be burglary and receiving stolen property. So they ran off forms that left only the basics blank, such as the defendant's name, time of offense and victim--the looted store, in most cases.

Last weekend, two dozen deputy district attorneys closeted themselves in the Criminal Courts Building downtown to begin turning boxes of police reports into formal criminal charges. Others took the forms right to police stations, going through arrest reports as fast as officers could bring them.

By Monday, enough paper had been generated to enable sheriff's deputies to deliver an unheard-of 5,100 suspects to Municipal Courts around the county.

On Tuesday morning, ACLU attorney Paul Hoffman visited the Men's Central Jail, soon to be 1,000 above its capacity of 6,800.

Throughout the county jail system, the number of inmates had passed the previous record of 23,797, set in 1988. It was headed toward a peak of 26,700--well above the legal limit of 25,488 set by federal courts in litigation first brought by the ACLU almost two decades ago.

But as Hoffman toured the facilities with Lt. Richard Didion he saw deputies on 12-hour shifts, former jail computer operators called back in to help and crews fishing out inmates for countless bus trips to court.

Hoffman said he worried "whether people needing medical care are getting it." But he was not talking about getting a contempt order against the sheriff.

"Our sense of things," he said, "is that, while the place is full, the people running it are doing a good job. They're handling the crisis."

The way Didion put it was, "We're rollin'."

The next crisis was just hours away, however. That's when many inmates might be rollin' too, right out of custody. Midnight Tuesday was the deadline for arraigning riot arrestees under a state 48-hour rule.

With mobs of new inmates arriving, and others leaving on bail, no one was sure how many alleged looters and arsonists stood to be freed.

State Senate leader David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) got the impression the magic number was 6,500 after he received an urgent phone call from Reiner requesting "emergency" legislation to extend the deadline.

Reiner himself estimated the number at "2,000 to 2,500," which he termed "an impending disaster." And he was not optimistic that a bill, even one to keep accused looters in jail, could make it through Sacramento in one day, especially one when the Legislature was not scheduled to meet.

"It's like buying a ticket in the lottery when the prize goes up to $20 million," he said. "Do you think you're going to win?"

Reiner said he consulted Gates "a dozen times," and the Republican police chief agreed to get the cooperation of Wilson. Still, it would be a race against the clock.

When Roberti's plane touched down in Sacramento at 7:30 p.m., he phoned the Senate chamber and learned there were just 21 members on the floor, six short of a quorum. There were 33 senators by 8:10 p.m. The vote was unanimous.

In a highly publicized flight, a National Guard plane landed through fog to bring the bill to Wilson at Santa Monica Airport. At 11:29 p.m., Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas signed a judicial order extending the arraignment deadline by two days.

In his last call to Sheriff Sherman Block, Reiner remarked: "I feel like I'm calling the warden just before the pill drops. . . . Don't pull the switch."

Thursday, the new deadline day, was predictably busy. Three courts processed the felony arraignments. Misdemeanor suspects were being "cited out," released on their own recognizance, and the jail population was down to 25,343, back within legal limits.

Much like the streets, the criminal justice system was quieting down. But there was one mystery: Why weren't there more cases?

More than 16,000 people had been arrested, at last count. Yet fewer than 6,000 had been charged--the city attorney citing about 2,400 for misdemeanors, the D.A.'s office another 2,735 for felonies and 306 for misdemeanors.

Various officials offered theories for the gap. Perhaps more arrestees than they thought had been bailed out quickly and would face charges later. Perhaps the jail population had been underestimated at the start of the riots, so its growth was exaggerated--not so many new people had flooded in.

"No one was able to give the exact answer to where these other thousands would be," prosecutor Shapiro said. But it didn't worry him or his colleagues.

"Twenty years from now," he noted, "people will look back and say, 'What was this unusual occurrence?' "

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