From oppressor to partner
What LAPD Sgt. Rick Arteaga remembers most about the first night of the riots is a curbside history lesson at the intersection of Manchester and Vermont.
Six police officers were trying to face down 400 angry residents. The Los Angeles Police Department brass had just ordered the officers to withdraw.
“Get in the car!” Arteaga yelled. But his rookie partner froze, unwilling to turn his back on the advancing mob. In those menacing seconds, a single fear grabbed them both: This was a crowd bent on vengeance and they were about to be lynched.
Arteaga grabbed the shotgun from the floor of his patrol car and made a noisy show of loading a round. The crowd backed off just long enough for his partner to retreat.
Word of the “not guilty” verdicts in the Rodney King case had, in minutes, reached the streets. Arteaga had never seen anything turn so bad so fast.
People were cursing and shouting at him: Four hundred years! You’ve been suppressing us for 400 years!
Arteaga, just 29, was thinking, “What did 400 years have to do with me?”
Everything. Because he wore the uniform of a force that had ruled South Los Angeles like an occupying army.
Twenty years later, Arteaga heads a team of senior lead officers in the 77th Street Division, a few miles from that riot standoff.
The team, streetwise veterans of this part of the city, is the heart of a community policing effort born in the riot’s aftermath.
The officers are the face of a more enlightened department. But they share the legacy, too, of its darkest hours.
Critics say the police gave up when the riots erupted, letting big chunks of Los Angeles burn while looters and hoodlums ruled.
The officers say commanders held them back, fearing that street clashes would produce endless violent video loops and countless battered Rodney Kings.
Some cops are still bitter about that call: They weren’t running away. They were following orders.
“We were considered cowards,” Arteaga said. “It was hurtful that we were being blamed for what the community did.”
His words reflect the disconnect:
They were burning down their community. Police were outsiders, standing back.
For 20 years, the department has wrestled with that. Now crime is more than pinpoints on a map.
The riots were proof that what was wrong in South Los Angeles could not be fixed with battering rams.
An independent commission investigating the LAPD in 1991, after King’s beating but before the riots, castigated the department for excessive force, racist cops, indifferent commanders and disdain for residents.
Community policing was prescribed as a way to restore the public’s trust and dilute the “siege mentality.” Its focus was on crime prevention and mutual respect between officers and citizens.
Today crime is lower than it’s been in decades, and 70% of L.A. residents say they approve of the Police Department.
But it took years -- and a series of police chiefs -- for the LAPD to manage the philosophical shift. That evolution relied on many things: progressive leadership, broad recruitment, technological advances and, not least, a drop in violent crime that gave everybody room to breathe.
In the busy 77th Street Division -- 12 square miles in South Los Angeles, from the edge of Watts to Inglewood -- there were 143 homicides in 1992, but only 32 last year.
“It used to be corners you’d go by and there were gang members everywhere,” recalled senior lead officer Gary Verge, whose turf abuts the Crenshaw area.
A lot of those gang members are now behind bars. “That’s a lot less bad guys on the block.”
There’s also a lot less crack cocaine, which fueled violence among drug dealers and robberies by desperate addicts.
“Now, there are times you’re driving in circles and nothing’s going on,” Verge said. “There are fewer shootings. Not so many people running with guns. People aren’t turning and fighting as much as they used to.”
The drop in tension pays dividends. Police officers aren’t primed for trouble, and residents don’t blame them for everything.
“We used to go to block club meetings and we’d be the problem,” Verge said. " Police ain’t this. Police don’t do that. Now they trust us to solve the problems.”
They have the luxury, finally, of focusing on nuisances that more prosperous places don’t tolerate: street vendors clogging a busy corner; young men gambling in the park; graffiti covering a vacant house; a trash-strewn alley where transients smoke crack.
And a bunch of guys wearing baggy pants, crowding the sidewalk outside a tattoo parlor.
I’m on a ride-along with Verge when he spots them on Crenshaw Boulevard. He pulls his patrol car to the curb, gets out, walks over, tells them to move. The young men argue. The Times photographer riding with us aims his camera and shoots. A few parolees wander off; they can’t afford a beef. Several people pull out cellphones and start recording the scene.
A helicopter hovers overhead, a backup officer arrives. The heated back-and-forth goes on. Fifteen minutes pass.
Everybody pull out your phone and put it on him! someone in the crowd keeps yelling. Verge is handing out business cards.
I think back to 1992 and how this drama might have played out, when they didn’t have cellphones, but bottles and rocks.
Verge is not backing down. The crowd considers this harassment.
Police have been watching the shop for months. They rarely see customers go inside, but “employees” sporting gang tattoos always seem to be hanging around out front.
“This is a real ‘I pay taxes’ business,” protests the shop’s owner. Divine the Great, he calls himself.
He hires gang members as tattoo artists “to give them something to do,” he said. “I don’t want them robbing my house, just like you don’t want them robbing yours.”
You could see Divine the Great as the “community” part of community policing.
But Verge sees the tattoo shop as a blot on a boulevard that residents want swept clean.
The department is moving in little steps, away from disorder, toward partnership.
Ask Curtis Suttle, a worried father, pleading with the 77th Street station desk officer for help.
Gang members are threatening his 16-year-old son. The boy’s a basketball player, not a gangbanger. He lives with his mother in an apartment a few blocks south on Broadway.
Suttle wants an officer there right now. The desk cop gives him a phone number. But it’s busy every time that Suttle calls it. Forget it, he says, storming off.
“I’m fixing to take care of this myself ...”
And I’m imagining all that might go wrong between a gangbanger and an angry dad.
Then I spot Michael Shea, another senior lead who’s offered to take me on a ride-along. I tell him what happened and we head outside. Suttle is halfway down the block.
“Sir!” Shea yells. “Do you have a situation you need the police to help you with?”
Suttle, a retired trash truck driver, has spent 30 years raising kids in South Los Angeles. He’s trying to aim this one toward college. “I don’t want nothing stupid to happen,” he said.
He jogs back and gets into the officer’s car. The troublemakers are gone when we reach the apartment. But the boy and his mother are waiting for us. The kid has already fought gang members once. Mom is scared to let him leave the building now.
Shea talks to both parents and to the building manager. He questions a woman who lives across the hall. He leaves them all with business cards, with his email address and cellphone number.
To the teenager, Shea administers a gentle lecture. He sees past the tattoos and swagger. The drawings on the boy’s arms aren’t gang-related. He’s just a kid new to the neighborhood, who doesn’t want to lose face by backing down.
I’d guess that Shea lost face with that family. He couldn’t promise safety. He didn’t collar the bad guy. But Shea relies on a different metric: “Twenty years ago, nobody would have listened to me. Nobody would have called.”
Back then, folks would sooner risk an ambulance ride, or a visit from the coroner, than open the door of their home to an officer from the Los Angeles Police Department.
Even the best community policing might not have been enough to avert the riots. Four hundred years of baggage takes an awfully long time to unpack.
But the city might have seen it coming if police officers in South Los Angeles had been plugged into their neighborhoods.
When the fires started, Shea couldn’t believe it. “I had no idea. Why would people burn down their own things? That didn’t make any sense to me.”
He learned that logic can’t explain everything. And that the line between good guys and criminals can be blurry and shifting and thin.
He remembers guarding a damaged market near Slauson and Vermont. The front wall was gone and a car was cruising the aisles, “with a Mexican lady on the roof and her kids grabbing things from the shelves and throwing them inside.”
Was that about Rodney King? Oppression? Poverty? Or just an opportunity to steal?
When the officers were finally allowed onto smoldering streets, the depth of their isolation sank in. They watched parents shamelessly pushing strollers packed with looted diapers, sneakers, stereos.
The officers learned a lot about race and reality that spring.
“The officers who were black had it the worst,” remembered Tim Wunderlich, a senior lead and the son of a cop who “fought in ’65,” the Watts riots.
In ’92, the thugs who attacked white trucker Reginald Denny pelted black officers with racial slurs. “They were calling them Uncle Toms, traitors, all that stuff. They had it harder than we did,” Wunderlich said, “because they were on the side of the ‘enemy.’ ”
For Verge, who’s black, those moments stung. He was born a block from the 77th Street station and had friends and family in the riot zone.
But in 1992 he lived in Simi Valley, where the officers charged with beating King were on trial. The Ku Klux Klan planned a rally at a nearby park. But the local residents wouldn’t allow it.
“They said, ‘We’re not having this in our community.’ It was white people that ran them off. That made me feel good,” Verge told me. “You know what everybody said about Simi Valley.”
Simi Valley had been called a racist town. Just as South Los Angeles had its hoodlum label.
It’s hard to take the measure of a place when you’re only passing through.
This is what community policing really comes down to:
Tuning in to a community. Trying to understand its issues. Getting to know its people.
Has the LAPD done that in South Los Angeles? The answer depends on your reference point.
For Arteaga, it’s the face of a middle-aged black man from that first-night riot standoff, who told him in a voice as cold as ice: This is for 400 years of oppression.
“I’ll never forget the anger in his eyes. It was directed at me. Not for who I am but for the badge, the uniform I had on....
“You could never have made me believe back then that I would live long enough to see this kind of partnership.”
BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX
A timeline of events
On the afternoon of April 29, 1992, a jury in Ventura County acquitted four LAPD officers of beating Rodney G. King. The incident, caught on amateur videotape, had sparked national debate about police brutality and racial injustice.
April 29, 1992 | 3:15 p.m.
Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and Officers Laurence M. Powell, Theodore J. Briseno and Timothy E. Wind are acquitted.
Florence & Normandie
Police respond to their first report of trouble at Florence and Normandie avenues -- beer cans being thrown at passing motorists -- but quickly retreat and don’t return for almost three hours.
As angry demonstrators begin gathering outside police headquarters and TV stations air scenes of violence near Florence and Normandie, Police Chief Daryl Gates declares his officers are dealing with the situation “calmly, maturely, professionally.” He then drives to a Brentwood reception and fundraiser for the campaign against Charter Amendment F, a police reform ballot measure.
Cameras televise gravel truck driver Reginald O. Denny being dragged from his cab and beaten nearly to death. Denny is rescued by two men and two women.
State of emergency
Mayor Tom Bradley calls a local state of emergency. Moments later, Gov. Pete Wilson, at Bradley’s request, orders the National Guard to activate 2,000 reserve soldiers.
The California Highway Patrol closes the exit ramps off the Harbor Freeway from the Santa Monica Freeway junction to Century Boulevard.
A call for calm
Bradley, in a grim televised address, says the city will “take whatever resources [are] needed” to quell the violence. “Stay off the streets. It’s anticipated that a curfew will be put into effect tomorrow night.”
April 30, 1992 | 12:15 a.m.
Bradley declares a sunset-to-sunrise curfew within the area bounded by Vernon Avenue on the north, the city limits on the east, Century Boulevard on the south and Crenshaw Boulevard on the west. The directive also prohibits the sale of ammunition and the sale of gasoline except for automobiles.
The National Guard’s 2,000 troops are in place at armories, but not deployed until later that day. The governor says police commanders were slow to decide how best to use the Guard.
National Guard deployed
The National Guard is officially deployed. By late afternoon, hundreds of troops take up positions around the city.
Bradley declares a citywide curfew. At various times, curfews are also imposed in Carson, Culver City, Hawthorne, Hermosa Beach, Huntington Park, Inglewood, San Fernando, Torrance and West Hollywood.
More Guard troops
Bradley and Wilson announce they have requested more National Guard troops to bring the total to 6,000. They also ask the U.S. military to be placed “on alert.”
Peace rally in Koreatown
May 1, 1992 | 1 p.m.
More than 1,000 Korean Americans and others gather at a peace rally, while scores of merchants from South Los Angeles to Mid-Wilshire to Koreatown arm themselves with shotguns and automatic weapons.
The city of Pomona declares a state of emergency and imposes a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
Rodney G. King breaks silence
Rodney G. King makes a public statement. Nervous and barely audible, his voice lost at times to the blasting sounds of helicopter rotors overhead, King asks, “People, I just want to say ... can we all get along? Can we get along?”
May 2, 1992 | 11:30 a.m.
Bradley announces that the citywide curfew will be in
Marines in Compton
The first Marine Corps units arrive in Compton.
Curfew to be lifted
May 3, 1992 | 11:30 a.m.
Bradley announces that he will lift the dusk-to-dawn curfew.
Los Angeles returns to work
May 4, 1992 | 6 a.m.
With their street corners still guarded by rifle-toting soldiers, Los Angeles residents return to work and school.
Dec. 7, 1992
Damian Monroe Williams, convicted of throwing a brick that struck trucker Reginald O. Denny in the head, is sentenced to 10 years in jail.
Koon and Powell guilty
April 17, 1993
A federal jury returns guilty verdicts against Los Angeles Police Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and Officer Laurence M. Powell for violating Rodney King’s civil rights.
They are later sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison.
Key figures and where they are now
RODNEY G. KING
On March 3, 1991, Rodney G. King led police on a high-speed chase before being stopped in Lake View Terrace. LAPD officers struck King more than 50 times as he was handcuffed on the ground, breaking his cheekbone, fracturing the base of his skull and breaking a leg.
King, 47, has spent the $3.8 million awarded to him by the city. He has had frequent run-ins with police for domestic violence, substance abuse and driving under the influence. King lives in Rialto.
Shortly after midnight, George Holliday awoke to the sounds of police sirens and helicopters outside his apartment. He grabbed his Sony Handycam and began filming.
His nine minutes of grainy footage ignited furious charges of racial injustice. He received $500 from KTLA-TV Channel 5 for rights to broadcast the tape. He owns a copy -- the original remains in federal archives.
Holliday lives in the San Fernando Valley.
SOON JA DU
Two weeks after King’s beating, Korean American grocer Soon Ja Du fatally shot 15-year-old Latasha Harlins after a dispute over a bottle of orange juice. Latasha died with $2 in her hand.
A judge sentenced Du to probation, saying she was in fear from earlier robberies. The sentence and a surveillance video of Latasha being shot in the back inflamed racial tensions.
Du’s store burned in the rioting and never reopened. Du, 71, lives in the San Fernando Valley.
STACEY C. KOON
Stacey C. Koon, an LAPD sergeant at the beating scene, was acquitted in state court but was one of two officers convicted of federal civil rights violations. He served 30 months in prison and wrote a book, raising $4 million in legal funds.
Koon, 61, does not talk about his personal life because of continued death threats, said his lawyer Ira M. Salzman. “He’s a committed family man,” Salzman said. “And he’s moving forward with his life as best as he can.”
THEODORE J. BRISENO
Theodore J. Briseno was twice acquitted of criminal charges. He was the only defendant to break ranks and testify against the other three officers who were charged, describing them as “out of control.”
He acknowledged that he stomped on King late in the video, saying he was trying to stop him from moving.
Briseno, a 10-year LAPD veteran, was fired in 1994 and unsuccessfully fought to keep his job. He is 59, and property records show he lives in Illinois.
REGINALD O. DENNY
Hours after the verdicts, millions watched on TV as truck driver Reginald O. Denny was stopped at Florence and Normandie avenues, dragged from his truck and beaten unconscious with a brick, a tire iron and a fire extinguisher. He had more than 90 skull fractures.
He went through years of therapy, working on his speech and regaining the ability to drive. Now 56, he works as a boat mechanic in Lake Havasu, Ariz., and “he’s getting along somewhat,” a family member said.
Two weeks after Reginald Denny was beaten, Damian “Football” Williams, the man who smashed Denny’s head with a brick, was arrested in a raid by 100 state and federal officers. He was convicted and served four years of a 10-year sentence.
After his release, he was arrested and convicted of aiding in a murder at a drug house in 2000 and sentenced to 46 years to life. Williams, 39, is in Calipatria State Prison.
DARYL F. GATES
Police Chief Daryl F. Gates refused to step down after the King episode. He apologized but called it an aberration in the LAPD.
Gates became a polarizing figure, reviled by LAPD critics and lauded by people who wanted the department to forcefully put down the violence.
A commission later blamed Gates for a slow police response to the riots. He retired a month after the riots and moved to Orange County. He died in 2010. Thousands mourned in a downtown procession.