L.A. Riots: LAPD Commander, 'That Day, It Felt Like Everybody Hated Us'
This story is part of a special Neon Tommy series revisiting the upheaval 20 years ago surrounding the Rodney King trial. See more of our anniversary coverage here.
Smith was a police officer at the Los Angeles Police Department’s Newton Division on April 29, 1992. The Rodney King beating verdict was the breaking point for a city already torn by tensions between the police and communities of color.
“Remembering what was going on in the city, most people in the city hated the LAPD,” he said. “Certainly that day, it felt like everybody hated us.”
For more than a week during the riots, Smith worked 12-hour shifts in South L.A.. The first morning, he packed his trunk with groceries, not sure when the next chance to eat would arise.
Police stations quickly filled to capacity. Smith photographed looters he caught for documentation but then had to let them go.
“We had no mechanism to put people in jail. We had literally hundreds of people that we detained and had no way to transport them back to the station because we’re four [officers] deep in our cars. We were stuck.”
Smith saw a variety in the looters themselves and the merchandise they targeted.
“Certainly it was a small section of the community but it was a cross-section of the community as well. There was no particular ethnicity that was involved, it was everybody. People from out of town coming here because they saw that the law was completely overwhelmed and they thought, now’s my chance to get some free electronic goods.”
He noticed that the most popular stolen items were alcohol and diapers.
“The biggest thing that was stolen was Pampers. It was one of the first things that would go from any grocery store that got looted, all the Pampers were gone. I always thought that was kind of odd. And liquor of course.”
To get to merchandise in closed stores, looters would drive stolen cars through the front doors and gates, take what they could and leave. Once the doors were open, Smith said it became a free-for-all.
While driving through South L.A., Smith—now commanding officer for media relations and community affairs—pointed out businesses that left after the riots, restaurants he used to go to before they were burned down and where, for the first time as a cop, he was shot at.
“There’s a little market here around the corner, or there was, where they kicked the doors in, basically broke the doors off the place,” Smith said at the intersection of Central and Vernon Avenues. “The owner, an Asian guy, was giving away all the food, saying, ‘Take everything, just don’t burn the place down.’ That night they burned the place to the ground.”
Smith had been with the LAPD for four years when the riot happened. He had established relationships with people on his patrol, often stopping to talk to them on their front lawns or having coffee with them.
It was businesses and families he knew that he worried about in between shifts.
“There was a little family I had befriended the Christmas before. There was a garage in the back [of their house] and we had a murder in there. So I befriended the family, I’d stop and check in on the kids. I was terrified for them while I was at home during my off-time.”
He drove down Slauson Avenue, stopping at San Pedro Street. He pointed to a small, red building, alone on an island of land in the shape of triangle.
It was a restaurant having its grand opening. Twenty years ago, it was a restaurant serving breakfast and lunch, owned by two young Asian women.
“We’d go there for breakfast once in a while or we’d have a cup of coffee there. For the first two or three days we were able to keep their place from being burned down. But by the fourth or fifth day, someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail on the roof and the place burned down. They never rebuilt it, they ended up moving to the Inland Empire and I never saw them again.”
A paralyzed police department
Smith remembered starting at a Police Department made up primarily of white males. Slowly changing, the department now mirrors L.A.’s civilian population, Smith said.
“This is not the police department of 20 years ago. It’s become more and more Hispanic, more and more Asian, many more females, we’ve just become an incredibly diverse department.”
Then-Chief Daryl Gates pushed racial tensions further in alienating the black community.
“Chief Gates did a lot to alienate communities, especially the black community from the police department. Some of the remarks that he said really led everybody to believe that he was the racist head of a racist organization, unfortunately.”
Smith called Gates an effective leader in the beginning, leading the department successfully through the 1984 Olympics.
“But as time went on, he became alienated from [then-Mayor Tom Bradley] - you know they went like, two years without talking? The mayor and the chief of police didn’t talk. Shoot, Chief [Charlie] Beck talks to the mayor three times a week now.”
Gates faced criticism for attending a fundraiser in Brentwood the day the riot began. Later, Smith said, Gates was furious over a lack of action and decision-making by his officers.
“He was probably driving back from [the fundraiser] as this was happening. He could’ve called on the radio, I suppose, and given direction but I think he assumed that, I’ve got deputy chiefs and assistant chiefs and captains and commanders, they’ve been trained, they should do their job. And I think for whatever reason, they were afraid to do their job or they were unsure of what their job was.”
A command post for officers had been placed at 54th Street and Van Ness Avenue. Hundreds of officers reporting to work were given assigned routes but not a strategic plan. When rioters took over the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues, the officers who responded were pulled back to the command post. Shortly after, a white truck driver named Reginald Denny was beaten unconscious by rioters.
“We recognize that pulling out of Florence and Normandie, which is where the flashpoint of the riot really started, was a huge mistake.”
Smith continued, “It was a dysfunctional city, I think we’d all agree. The police department was too small, we were operating under the wrong policing model, the economy was bad but that’s not really an excuse for what happened but that’s one of the factors that came in there. The upper echelons of the police department were paralyzed when we should’ve acted; we didn’t. And the chief of police and the mayor didn’t even speak.”
Working to prevent another L.A. riot
At the time of the riot and currently, a distrust in police is an echo in people’s minds. Smith attributed it to racial discrimination and segregation from four decades before the riot.
“People have long memories. I think a lot of the folks that live here grew up in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and some in the ‘40s. If I think of the way that maybe they were treated back in those days, say that the way a young black man was treated by LAPD in the ‘50s or ‘60s or maybe even ‘70s, I think, my gosh, ya know, a guy with a long memory could hold a pretty long grudge about stuff like that and I think they do.”
Twenty years later, Smith said the department is more diverse and less aggressive.
“We are a different department. We train differently, we hire differently. If we find someone that’s got any kind of prejudice or racist tendencies, first of all we don’t hire them. If somehow they get in here, they don’t last long. Anybody that’s got a problem with excessive force or brutality, we track that and we get that guy out of the field, we train him or we fire him.”
Institutionally, the commander said the department reaches out to its communities, especially communities of color. He said the department operates under a community policing model; creating relationships between officers and communities by working together to solve problems.
“We need to treat people right, too, and that means with the respect that everybody deserves and I think that in our old model of policing, sometimes that got left by the wayside.”
The policing model the department had during the riot, Smith said, was overly aggressive. Too often officers tried to stop crimes before they started, alienating communities.
“Pretty soon everybody in the community looks like a bad guy and heck, most people down here, even though they aren’t wealthy, are law-abiding, hardworking citizens that just want the same thing for their families as you and I want for our family: Live in peace, be able to have a job and work, take care of your family. We didn’t recognize that for a while.”
Smith hopes the relationship between the police and South L.A. community members has turned the corner from the tension of the ‘90s.
“There are so many cops out here that are doing such good work now. I’m hoping that we’re able to move forward on a lot of that stuff and it’s not going to be the way it used to be.”
Tactically, the department has adopted a mobile field force concept; a strategy to move large numbers of officers from one part of the city to another.
“In the case of a riot like this, what we should’ve done is moved a bunch of officers from the valley down to here and deployed them out into the areas. What we did was deploy a bunch of officers to 54th and Van Ness where you had hundreds of officers sitting there hour after hour after hour doing nothing while the city burned. I hate to say it, but our command staff at the time was really paralyzed at the time, and were not doing a good job of taking care of business and getting people out there, and everybody seemed to be afraid to make a decision, waiting for Chief Gates to come into town.”
After days of burning, looting, 54 deaths and $1 billion in damages to the city, the riot ended with a strong National Guard and Marines presence.
“I remember saying to people, though, there’s really nothing left to loot, nothing left to burn. Every liquor store that I could see had already been smashed open, every grocery store had already been smashed open. And by then people started to calm down a little bit, and recognized that what we were doing was mainly people were doing it to their own neighborhoods and ruining their own neighborhoods.”
The crime rate is a quarter of what it was in 1992, Smith said. The Newton Division alone saw 137 homicides that year.
“In 1992, I didn’t think it was ever going to get any better. We reached rock bottom during the riots. But now, since 2000, things are so much better here. The economy’s still bad but this place is essentially crime-free compared to the way it was. Literally a quarter of the crime we had in 1992. So I think there’s at least hope that things are going to get better here for most of the folks that are here. And certainly, crime-wise, it’s night and day.”
Reach Senior News Editor Agnus Dei Farrant here.