Offering his first detailed response to charges that the Los Angeles Police Department bungled last week's riots, Chief Daryl F. Gates denied that the brass was ill-prepared and blamed a field lieutenant for mistakes that he said have overshadowed the department's "beautiful" performance in containing the citywide calamity.
Gates, in one of the last and most important news conferences of his tumultuous 14-year tenure as chief, said the lieutenant failed to regroup his officers and rout rioters from a South Los Angeles intersection where officers had moments earlier been pelted by debris while trying to restore order.
"He had a responsibility to regroup and form up in squads and obtain additional people and go back to that location and clean it up," Gates said. "Unfortunately, he did not do that. . . . That was a mistake. We admit that mistake."
Gates, appearing subdued and drained of energy, suggested that had police forces immediately returned to the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues--the flash point of the riots--then the brutal, televised assault on trucker Reginald O. Denny might have been prevented.
"We regret the fact we did not go in and do what we should have done, and rescue Mr. Denny. . . . There is not a single police officer who does not feel absolutely, absolutely just terrible about what occurred," Gates said. Still, he said, the spreading riots could not have been contained even if the the lieutenant had acted more forcefully.
Without naming him, Gates was singling out Lt. Michael Moulin of the 77th Street Division, who was in charge of field forces in the area where most of the early unrest erupted after the not guilty verdicts for four LAPD officers in the Rodney G. King beating case.
Moulin has defended his decisions, saying that he had no choice but to retreat because he feared that the lives of his officers and the public would have been jeopardized by a show of force during the first volatile moments.
Reached at home Friday after Gates' comments, Moulin said that he had been ordered to go home and "not to talk."
At the same time Gates criticized Moulin, he praised the department's high-level commanders, saying they prepared extensively for the possibility of violence. His remarks seemed designed to deflect criticisms that Gates and other top staff members were lackadaisical in their preparations for the riots and in their responses after they erupted.
"We wanted to be ready for any eventuality and we were. . . . I am proud of my police officers. I am proud of my leaders. We had some glitches and I am not unwilling to admit those glitches."
Gates also acknowledged that he should not have gone to a political fund-raiser in Brentwood as motorists were being pulled from their cars and beaten at Florence and Normandie.
"I should not have been at the function," he said during the packed news conference at Parker Center. "I should have turned around when I heard some of these things happening. . . . I have no excuse for that. I make no excuse for that."
Besides Gates, a number of other police officials were either on vacation, had gone home or were attending a training seminar in Ventura.
Gates' remarks drew sharp reactions from community and political leaders.
"It sounds to me as if Chief Gates is living on another planet," City Councilman Michael Woo said. "There are numerous signs of inadequate preparation by the Los Angeles Police Department, and it's not only a matter of decisions by individual commanders in the field, but the failure to mobilize enough officers in the early hours of the riot, the absence of captains (who were) at that conference in Ventura, the failure to call a tactical alert earlier. All of that adds up to me as a failure in planning."
Police Commission President Stanley K. Sheinbaum said Gates' decision to lay the blame for the department's shortcomings on one lieutenant was an unfortunate exercise in "finger-pointing and self-excusing."
Sheinbaum said he thought the department's failures were far more widespread than its response at one intersection.
"At this point," Sheinbaum said, "placing blame is not the issue. What is the issue is what went wrong? Where was the plan? Where did the plan fail?"
Sheinbaum promised a major investigation by "persons of enormous authority and stature" into what went wrong.
He said he would announce who is on the investigative panel next week; he declined to comment on reports that it would include former FBI Director William H. Webster and Hubert Williams, director of the Police Foundation, a research group.
Commissioner Ann Reiss Lane said she thinks Gates should speed up his retirement to early June, rather than the end of next month while he is using up vacation time.
"What I want to work on is how do we pay him off?" she said. "Pay him off and let that vacancy be created" so his successor, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Willie L. Williams, can take the job earlier.
She said there is an effort afoot to urge him to do so: "I think it is being explored." Gates, in his news conference, indicated that he will leave when he has said he will--at the end of June.
Gates' statements Friday come after a week of disclosures that pointed to problems in the LAPD's response in the frantic moments of the start of the riots, as well as allegations that the department never was fully prepared for such a major civil disturbance.
Now-retired Assistant Chief Robert L. Vernon stated that the police were to have gone on immediate tactical alert once the verdicts were announced--regardless of guilt or acquittals for the four officers. But numerous police officials, including Deputy Chief Ron Frankle, said they knew nothing about such a directive.
As it turned out, a citywide tactical alert was not announced until 6:55 p.m. on April 29, almost four hours after the verdicts were read in the Simi Valley courtroom and almost six hours after the jurors had notified the judge that they had reached a decision.
In addition, Deputy Chief Matthew V. Hunt told The Times that he pressed Gates for greater preparation before the verdicts, but that the chief rebuffed his requests. And when the violence began, Hunt said, he and other top police officials found themselves overwhelmed with the gravity of the situation.
During his news conference, Gates appeared with Vernon, who has said he ordered extensive planning and training before he announced his retirement recently. As he stood by Gates, Vernon displayed two large charts outlining his preparations.
Although Vernon remained quiet, Gates said there had been audits of the department's readiness, drills and meetings. The chief emphasized that throughout the planning the department attempted to maintain a low profile.
"We did this in a way that we hoped would not be provocative," Gates said, adding that he had personally been assailed "almost every day" before the beating verdicts with allegations that he was inflaming emotions.
He said the department planned in a responsible manner with an eye toward acting "as a calming force in the city."
Gates also defended the department against charges by fire officials that the police failed to protect firefighters as they headed into riot-torn areas of the city to fight arson blazes.
"We promised them protection from the beginning," Gates said. "We tried very hard to give them that protection." Gates said that his officers rescued firefighters trapped in a station.
"I am very, very proud of my officers," the chief said, praising their bravery as they ventured into dangerous areas throughout the city to quell riotous mobs. "We did a far better job than in 1965," Gates said. Back then, he said, it took five days to end the Watts riots; this time it took only three, with fewer deaths at the hands of police.