Webster to Head Probe of Police Response to Riot : Law enforcement: The former FBI director pledges a wide-ranging inquiry. Police Commission’s role and statements by public officials will be included in review.
Former FBI Director William H. Webster was appointed Monday to direct an investigation of the Los Angeles Police Department’s heavily criticized response to the rioting, looting and violence that swept large areas of the city after the verdicts in the Rodney King beating case.
Webster, a former U.S. appellate court judge, was named special adviser to the city Police Commission, which has promised a thorough examination of the LAPD’s handling of the riots that left more than 50 people dead and caused more than $700 million in property damage. Assisting Webster as deputy special adviser will be Hubert Williams, president of the Washington-based Police Foundation think tank, and a former Newark, N.J., police chief.
Police Commission President Stanley K. Sheinbaum told reporters at a news conference that the Webster investigation will examine the LAPD’s preparedness before the riots and its response after violence erupted.
“What worked, what didn’t, and what we can learn from all that in the future,” Sheinbaum said. “It’s not going to be a study that will lay blame. . . . We want to rise above . . . pointing fingers . . . and move ahead.”
The Police Department has come under fire for pulling back from the South Los Angeles intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues, where some of the earliest violence was reported, and for failing to redeploy for hours. It was during this period that unsuspecting and defenseless motorists were dragged from their cars and brutally beaten in horrifying scenes broadcast live on television.
As the violence and fire-bombings rapidly spread during the evening of April 29, police were trying to regroup and build up their numbers at a command post, officials have said. Police Chief Daryl F. Gates acknowledged last week that police initially did not respond as they should have in South Los Angeles, largely because of the mistakes of a lieutenant. Generally, Gates has insisted that the department was properly prepared and he praised the performance of his officers and commanders.
Webster, who gained his law enforcement credentials serving as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and, later, of the Central Intelligence Agency through the 1980s, said that his study will range well beyond the fundamental questions of how LAPD riot squads should have been readied and deployed.
His review team is expected to include more than 100 volunteer attorneys and law enforcement officials, a few of whom were involved in the Christopher Commission investigation of police brutality ordered after the King beating. The effort, officials said, will span a variety of issues surrounding the police response. These include cooperation between the National Guard troops and the Police Department as well as the roles played by the Police Commission and possibly the mayor’s office.
“We’re going to look into every form of leadership that affected the performance of the LAPD during that period of time,” Webster said.
The investigation, which is expected to take several months, will include a review of media coverage and statements by public officials issued before the riots and during its early stages, Webster said. Some police officials have suggested that Mayor Tom Bradley’s strong reaction to the verdict may have inflamed tensions the night of the riots. Bradley, in televised remarks, called the verdicts “senseless” and said “the system failed us.”
Webster also said he will assess the extent to which the city’s budget crunch may have left the Police Department with “inadequate resources and inadequate personnel.” Gates, the police officers union and others have argued for years that the department’s 7,900 officers are far too few to protect the city.
The inquiry generally will be confined to the response of the city’s leadership during the crisis, Webster said, rather than exploring in detail the social ills that many community leaders argue are the root causes of the riots.
Gates withheld comment during a special Police Commission meeting Monday, where Webster and Williams were appointed.
Later, he told reporters he has “a lot of confidence” in the men heading the inquiry. He pledged to cooperate fully and said he expects “a very intensive but very objective examination of what took place.”
Gates said he spoke with Webster on Monday morning and was assured that the Police Department would be given an opportunity to review and comment on the investigation before it is finalized.
Gates, who has been criticized for leaving police headquarters to attend a political fund-raiser as the riots began, is completing his in-house probe of the department’s response. Gates said that Webster’s inquiry will mirror his preliminary conclusions--that despite some limited “glitches” in the early stages of the riot, LAPD officers and commanders performed well.
“I’m comfortable with the preparations that took place,” Gates told reporters Monday at an impromptu news conference. “A lot of effort was put into it.”
Gates has argued that the barrage of attacks on the department after the King beating may have made officers and commanders reluctant to use force, for fear of renewing allegations of brutality.
On Monday, he urged the Webster team to “take a look at some of the mental (attitudes) that have been building in this department for over a year of constant criticism” and how they may have affected the response.
Gates said Friday that much of what did go wrong in the early stages of civil disturbance was the fault of a field lieutenant--identified in interviews as Lt. Mike Moulin--and some of his unnamed superiors.
Moulin, who has been ordered not to comment, pulled a group of officers back from a melee at Florence and Normandie about 5:45 p.m. April 29, an hour before motorists and truck driver Reginald O. Denny were yanked from their vehicles and attacked by a stone-throwing mob. Gates said the lieutenant failed to quickly muster a larger group of officers and return to the intersection to quell the violence.
Sheinbaum, the police commission president, and others disagreed with Gates’ assessment, saying all of the problems could not be laid on a mid-level field supervisor. On Monday, Gates said he “never blamed it totally on the lieutenant . . . I said that that failure to adjust rests not just with the lieutenant, but with people above him.”
But Gates declined to say how high up the command structure the responsibility for mistakes goes.
There has been discussion among some council members and police commissioners about a renewed effort to persuade Gates to retire earlier than he had promised. Gates has said he will leave office in early June but will remain as chief until the end of the month because of accrued vacation.
Gates said Monday he has not changed his retirement plans, but he did hint that he might step down sooner if he felt it is in the best interests of the department. Noting that he is a lightning rod for criticism and anti-police anger, he said: “Certainly I’m concerned . . . and I’m willing to do anything that would stop (the news media) from this feeding frenzy of beating up on my police officers.”
Officials want his designated replacement, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Willie L. Williams, to take over as soon as possible. Williams announced Monday that he will retire Friday from the Philadelphia post he has held since 1988. Williams said he will assume control of the Los Angeles Police Department at the end of June, but will move to Los Angeles earlier in the month.
Webster’s investigation will begin immediately. Although the bulk of the work will be on a volunteer basis, the city has agreed to pay for some out-of-pocket expenses.
One of the many police management issues likely to be examined in the Webster investigation is the impact of Gates’ decision to take direct command of several police divisions as part of an experiment in community-based policing.
Deputy Chief Matthew V. Hunt, who oversees South Los Angeles, had pressed Gates during the King trial to clarify who would direct riot control activities in the three divisions in his area that had been shifted to Gates’ command.
Cmdr. Robert S. Gil said Monday that Gates transferred direct command to Hunt at 4:30 p.m. April 29, about an hour before the first rioting broke out in one of those divisions.
Hunt declined Monday to comment on the effect that may have had on his ability to prepare.
Heading the Webster investigation staff is attorney Richard J. Stone, head of the litigation section of the Los Angeles office of Webster’s law firm, Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCoy.
Stone, a former Department of Defense deputy assistant general counsel, will oversee the work of a group of lawyers and police professionals being assembled to assist in the inquiry.
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