L.A. Is Warned of New Unrest, Vows Emergency Plans : Police: Webster report urges swift action in ‘city plagued by hostility, rage and resentment in many areas.’ Budget crisis and politicking could delay reforms.
Fearing that civil unrest could erupt again, Los Angeles city officials pledged Wednesday to support sweeping emergency preparedness reforms recommended by a special panel investigating the city’s response to the spring riots.
But even as they praised the proposals of the commission headed by former FBI Director William H. Webster and Police Foundation President Hubert Williams, many warned that a deepening city budget crisis and mayoral politicking threaten to undermine promises to implement the reforms.
The commission’s report--a comprehensive analysis of what went wrong in the handling of the nation’s deadliest and most destructive civil disturbance in modern times--was unveiled by Webster at a packed downtown news conference.
Webster, who led a team of 100 attorneys and other professionals who spent five months examining the riot response, strongly cautioned that unless city officials act quickly to correct major problems identified in the report, violence could again sweep the city.
“This city is plagued by hostility, rage and resentment in many areas . . . where minorities and economically deprived citizens believe the LAPD did not treat them with respect or extend the same level of protection as elsewhere,” Webster said.
“It could happen again.”
All of the city’s top officials--Mayor Tom Bradley, Police Chief Willie L. Williams, City Administrative Officer Keith Comrie and key council members--said they will move swiftly to develop contingency plans and support the new chief’s efforts to restructure the Police Department.
“The bottom line is, how do we have a better response in the future,” Comrie said.
In an interview, Webster said that new emergency plans should be in place no later than February, but that city officials and police should immediately undertake some preliminary steps under existing plans.
The Webster panel’s findings, most of which were disclosed by The Times in recent days, center on a massive failure of LAPD and City Hall leaders to adequately plan for civil disorder prior to verdicts being handed down in the Simi Valley trial of officers accused of beating Rodney G. King.
The investigation was ordered by the city Police Commission after a barrage of criticism that the LAPD’s sluggish response to the violence permitted rioting to spread to wide areas of the county. In all, 51 people died, according to the coroner’s office, and nearly $1 billion in property was damaged.
The panel’s proposed remedies include redeploying desk-bound and specialty unit LAPD officers into community patrols; streamlining and overhauling crisis planning systems and significantly upgrading the city’s emergency communications and information systems.
Meanwhile, release of the report shed new light on some key questions surrounding the riots, most notably just how quickly the Police Department might have been able to contain the violence had it been properly prepared and deployed. The investigators suggested that there may have been an opportunity to keep the rioting from spreading if officers had been quickly redeployed and had sealed off key flash points.
Former Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, who was singled out for the panel’s harshest criticism in part because he lacked a specific plan for dealing with the riots, bitterly lashed back Wednesday, saying at a news conference: “Clearly that night we should have gone down there and shot a few people.
“In retrospect, that’s exactly what we should have done. We should have blown a few heads off. And maybe your television cameras would have seen that and maybe that would have been broadcast and maybe, just maybe, that would have stopped everything. I don’t know. But certainly we had the legal right to do that.”
Gates, in an interview, also said Webster and Hubert Williams are “both . . . liars.”
Gates, now a radio talk show host, complained that he did not get to review the report before it was finalized, despite promises from Webster and Williams. Webster replied that time did not permit briefing the former chief and that he was no longer a city official when the report was being finalized.
Contradicting the report’s findings, Gates again insisted that the standard LAPD disaster preparedness manual was sufficient for dealing with the riots. “The plan was good. The execution was horrible,” he said.
The Webster report also spreads blame liberally among Mayor Bradley, the City Council, the Police Commission, LAPD commanders and Comrie--all of whom are charged with shrinking from their responsibilities to ensure the city was ready for the worst.
At City Hall, where the elected officials and their staffs were plowing through the detailed, two-volume report, the focus Wednesday was more on what lies ahead than fixing blame for the past.
The mayor, who was traveling in the Far East to promote tourism, issued directives through his office ordering new contingency plans for emergencies that stress inter-agency training and coordination. In a statement, Bradley said he was “determined to see to it that the entire structure of Los Angeles city government responds quickly and decisively” to the Webster panel recommendations.
Williams said the report “creates a mandate . . . to quickly address our priorities. And it creates a mandate for the city fathers to support the LAPD and allow the chief of police to run the department based on the wishes of the citizens of this city.” Comrie said criticism of himself was misdirected, but added: “We are not going to worry about that.”
In part, the urgency expressed by Webster and a number of city officials springs from tensions surrounding two racially volatile court cases--an upcoming federal trial of the LAPD officers accused of beating King and the state trial of three men accused of attacking trucker Reginald O. Denny and other motorists early in the riots.
“There’s no question that time is short and there is no time for finger-pointing,” said Deputy Mayor Mark Fabiani. “The entire city has to be prepared for the outcomes of those trials.”
Williams said he and his department have had emergency planning meetings with other city leaders, but there still is no specific emergency response plan in the event of another riot.
“We do not have a plan yet,” he said. “But we have been working hard . . . we have parts of the plan in place now.” He said officer training has increased, as has coordination with other law enforcement and emergency agencies.
“This department now . . . is better prepared than we were in April to respond” to civil disorder, he said.
Even as broad support surfaced for the Webster panel’s recommendations, cautionary words were voiced over the city’s fiscal problems.
The Webster Commission did not attempt to estimate the costs to fully implement its proposals, but they could be hefty, considering the call for more patrol officers, radio systems and training exercises.
There was particular concern over the cost of implementing one of the major proposals--the recommendation to reassign more officers to street duty.
Many officials indicated that it will be difficult to find money for more patrol officers, given the mounting red ink in the recession-ravaged budget.
“Obviously we are in a difficult time and it’s not going to be easy,” said Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, chairman of the council Budget and Finance Committee. “The fiscal crisis . . . is an obstacle to everything we want to do.”
Yaroslavsky and others are looking to Proposition N on next month’s ballot, which would pay for 1,000 additional police officers. They also are hoping the new chief can free up hundreds of officers at no significant cost by cutting back on desk jobs and elite assignments.
Williams told Yaroslavsky’s committee Tuesday that he hopes to have 150 officers shifted to patrol from desk duty and special assignments by the end of the year.
But how far Williams can stretch the existing force through redeployment remains to be seen, officials said.
The panel called for passage of another November ballot measure, Proposition M, which would impose new taxes to substantially beef up the “backbone” of the city’s emergency communications system.
“It costs more money,” Webster said, “but a judgment will just have to be made on how and what kind of investments this city is prepared to make to assure the quality of life and safety of its citizens.”
The group did not endorse Proposition N, which would increase property taxes to pay for police officers. Webster said his team was concerned that with the two ballot questions, voters might choose more officers over new equipment--when the latter was deemed the most immediately needed.
A central tenet of the Webster report is that key city officials need to work quietly as a team when it comes to emergency readiness and set aside turf battles and personal feuds. The report notes that Gates and Bradley did not speak to each other for more than a year prior to the riots.
But already the emergency preparedness issue has become a game ball in the wide-open campaign among City Council members to succeed Bradley, who is retiring after 19 years.
Councilman Michael Woo, who has declared his mayoral candidacy, triggered heated charges from potential mayoral rivals Tuesday when he sought to take the lead on the riot readiness question. Woo pushed an urgency motion, in part tied to the Webster panel findings, that would have required Williams to report in a public session on the LAPD’s emergency preparations. It was soundly defeated, with council members vying for credit and the favor of the popular new chief.
“The mayoral election will not have a positive impact on our ability to make progressive changes anywhere in the city,” said Fabiani, the deputy mayor. "(It’s) going to be divisive and bring out every ounce of pettiness that exists on the City Council.”
In its assessment of police deployment, the Webster investigators found that the department might have been able to limit the spread of violence the first night if it had followed its own procedures.
But the chance for containment was botched at two flash points where early rioting was televised, the commission said. These were at Florence and Normandie avenues, where trucker Denny was beaten, and at Parker Center police headquarters, where a mob set fire to a parking kiosk, then tore up and set fires in Civic Center buildings.
At both spots, hands-off decisions by high-ranking officers created the impression--spread via live television broadcasts--that lawbreakers would be treated with impunity, the panel found.
Citing the LAPD’s own procedures, the Webster group said police should have cordoned off a wide area around Florence and Normandie to prevent the disorder from spreading and to keep people from entering the area and becoming victims.
The sealing off of the area would have had to take place by 7 p.m.--an hour and 15 minutes after a small contingent of officers were ordered to abandon Florence and Normandie.
An analysis of 911 calls from the riot’s first night showed most of the initial violence was in South-Central Los Angeles and did not spread significantly until after 7 p.m.
Two high-ranking officers, Deputy Chief Matthew Hunt and 77th Street Division Capt. Paul Jefferson, appear to have considered a containment strategy, the Webster report said. “However, the confusion and paralysis (at a temporary command center) was so great that we can find no evidence of anyone having acted to implement a containment strategy.”
At Parker Center, where officers were commanded by Deputy Chief Bernard Parks, there were also “tactical errors . . . that communicated the same explosive message--the police were not going to act,” the report said.
Times staff writers James Rainey, Ted Rohrlich and Amy Wallace contributed to this report.
From the Report
The Webster Commission report included these comments about key figures during the riots:
On Ex-Police Chief Daryl F. Gates: “When Daryl Gates became chief of police, the department’s policing style reverted to (a) more paramilitary model. . . . Gates also moved the department away from contact with the community by placing more and more of his officers outside regular patrol functions and into highly trained, technically sophisticated, specialized units that had little day-to-day contact with the community.”
On Mayor Tom Bradley: “The mayor evidently anticipated the possibility of an adverse reaction to the trial verdicts and directed his staff to map out a response plan with community leaders. . . . The mayor’s plan seems to have been a relatively good one, as far as it went.”
On Capt. Paul Jefferson and Lt. Michael Moulin: “There is no dispute about the fact that they did not return (to redeploy officers at Florence and Normandie avenues). This failure to respond aggressively and in force appears to have been a significant tactical mistake.”