Lack of Materiel Slowed Police Response to Riots : LAPD: Chronic shortage of radios, phones and cars forced command center to scramble, records show.
The Los Angeles Police Department’s failure to respond quickly to the riots that swept the city three weeks ago can be traced, in part, to a chronic lack of basic equipment, a review of department records indicates.
Though the department has been widely perceived by outsiders as on the cutting edge of U.S. law enforcement technology, the portrait that emerges from a journal kept at the city’s Emergency Command Center is of a police force scrambling to secure such basic needs as radios, telephones and cars.
On the first night of the riots, the journal shows, top police officials in the command center were hampered in their ability to communicate directly with the field command post in South-Central Los Angeles, which had only two phone lines.
“Unable to advise FCP (field command post),” read an entry in the journal, entered nearly three hours after the field command post had been set up. “Both lines busy continually.”
Cellular phones had been requested earlier by officials at the field command post and were reportedly on their way. But at three minutes before midnight--nearly eight hours after the emergency command center was activated in the wake of the verdicts in the beating of Rodney G. King--there still was a cellular phone crisis in the Police Department.
“The telephone company has cellular telephone(s) that they would like to loa(n) us,” a journal entry said. “We need them.”
Police Chief Daryl F. Gates said Saturday that the problems reflected in the journal highlight a chronic lack of resources in the department. He blamed the City Council for not allocating enough money for equipment, and noted that city voters have rejected bond measures aimed at updating the communications system.
“It is an everyday problem and when you have a disaster it just makes it more of a problem,” Gates said, referring to the lack of equipment. He reiterated that he thought the department had done “a good job” of responding to the riots.
Gates said he has been trying for years to impress upon City Council members that the department’s communications equipment “is falling apart,” but that “no one has listened.”
Voters in 1990 and 1991 rejected bond measures sponsored by the Police Department that would have authorized $230 million to completely revamp the department’s outmoded radio communications system--including its emergency “911” system, he noted.
“This is a cheap city,” Gates said.
Deputy Chief Ronald Frankle, who shared responsibility for the emergency command center with another deputy chief, also decried a lack of resources but added that deploying equipment is more complicated than it seems in an emergency, especially when it has to be redistributed from one end of the city to another.
“I don’t think there’s a full awareness outside the emergency departments of city government about what a time-consuming endeavor it is to make these conversions,” Frankle said.
Frankle and Gates, reached at home, said they did not know the exact number of department-owned cars, cellular phones, and hand-held radios, known as rovers (remote out of vehicle radios). Everything available was put into service during the riots, but there is not nearly enough gear for every officer, particularly when the department is fully mobilized, they said.
Gates said the department, under normal circumstances, lacks enough hand-held radios for patrol and traffic officers. Frankle said all but a handful of the department’s cellular phones are mounted in cars and cannot be detached, and even those phone-equipped cars are assigned only to some top police officials and officers in special units.
Frankle maintained that every request for equipment noted in the journal was fulfilled, though he was unable to say how quickly without reading through the entries step by step.
The journal consists of hurriedly typewritten notes of events deemed significant at the command center, which is in the sub-basement of City Hall East and was activated with “minimal staffing” at 4 p.m. on April 29, the day the riots broke out. That was 45 minutes after the not guilty verdicts in the beating of Rodney G. King were announced.
A copy of the journal was obtained by The Times under a Public Records Act request.
Although sketchy, the journal’s entries add another dimension to oral accounts of street officers and department leaders who have acknowledged that the department was initially slow to respond to the rapidly spreading violence.
Many entries refer to frustrating logistic problems, such as difficulties in notifying officers that the department had mobilized--which means that all officers were to report for 12-hour shifts.
The decision to mobilize came shortly after 8 p.m., and attempts to reach everyone in the 8,000-officer department did not go smoothly, the journal shows.
At 8:50 p.m. the journal records the suggestion of a sergeant that radio and television stations be asked to broadcast the mobilization call “because many officers have (telephone) answering machines” and were not responding immediately.
Officers who did respond encountered delays waiting for transportation and hand-held radios to be secured. The journal makes it clear that there were not enough radios to go around.
The radios were purchased 15 years ago, said LAPD Capt. Dan Watson, and had a life expectancy of three years. But the department has been unable to get funds to replace them, and replacement parts are no longer manufactured. As a result, the department has had to cannibalize some of its radios to repair others, Watson and Gates said.
Some officers have told The Times that they were dispatched during the rioting with four officers to a car, and one rover among them.
The journal also sheds new light on problems that 77th Street Division field commanders encountered in setting up their command post at the RTD bus depot at 54th Street and Arlington Avenue when the rioting started.
As has previously been reported, the field commanders decided to regroup at the bus depot rather than continue to confront a crowd at one of the riot’s early flash points, Florence and Normandie avenues. Although the depot long had been designated as a site for a field command post in the event of major trouble in the division, there were apparently not enough phones, and Deputy Chief Matthew V. Hunt has complained that he had to waste time trying to get some hooked up.
The journal corroborates these oral accounts by indicating that by 7:30 p.m.--1 1/2 hours after the bus depot command center had been set up--police officials there still lacked one of the department’s portable command posts. They did not have cellular phones, televisions or a computer other than the terminals in their squad cars.
Hunt, the top officer for the Police Department’s South Bureau, had requested that the LAPD’s tactical planning section dispatch the mobile command posts it maintains for emergencies. These command posts are trucks containing desks, telephones and what officials have described as antiquated computers.
But tactical planning estimated that it would take 45 minutes--until 8:15 p.m.--for them to arrive, the journal says.
The written entries similarly note that Lt. Mike Moulin of the 77th Street Division, who had ordered the retreat from Florence and Normandie, said he needed 100 rovers with batteries. Tactical planning said only seven were available.
At 9:30 p.m., according to journal entries, someone involved in the search for hand-held radios contacted a lieutenant in the department’s support services bureau, who managed to round up 101 from somewhere within 15 minutes. But the emergency command center staff wondered, according to the journal: “How do we get them to the command post?”
Nearly two hours later, a journal entry indicates, they still had not arrived.
Elsewhere, some officers responding to the call for mobilization did not regularly work in the field and, as a result, were not assigned police cars.
At 10:14 p.m., the journal notes that 53 DARE officers, usually assigned to teach schoolchildren about the dangers of illegal drugs, were planning to rendezvous at the Police Academy at midnight but had “no radios or transport.”
About the same time, the watch commander in Van Nuys reported that he was short of police cars and hand-held radios. The North Hollywood watch commander was also looking for the radios, and the emergency command center told him none were available, the journal shows.
Difficulties continued the next day.
At 11 a.m., police in the South Bureau reported that they had a location for a field jail but no officers to staff it. They requested 60 radios and got 12.
At 12:30 p.m., the journal says, the emergency command center sent out “scouts”--narcotics officers in five cars with cellular phones--so it could get its own reports about what was going on in various parts of the city.
Cars were still scarce. That evening, a Wilshire detective reported that he urgently needed five. Frankle, meanwhile, said he needed 30 for South Bureau. He was told only seven could be found.
There are also indications in the journal that Frankle and other top officials were still having difficulty communicating with field commanders.
At 7:10 p.m., as the riot entered its second night, the journal reports that Frankle wanted several phones with multiple lines directly connecting his office with the bus depot in the South Bureau and the department’s three other bureaus.
Yet the journal shows that at 7 the next night--the third night of the riots--he still did not have the phones. A journal entry shows that city technicians--referring to the direct, emergency lines--were asking: “Where do you want the ring-down lines?”
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