L.A. Riots: Deputy Chief Aims To Not Repeat LAPD's Mistakes
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.
The riots provoked Gannon to create communication with communities and the Los Angeles Police Department to train officers in proactive and reactive plans.
“Everybody in the city family is locked together to try and make sure we don’t make the same mistakes we made in 1992,” he said.
Gannon helped coordinate responses from the South LA 77th Street police station on Apr. 29, 1992. The then-sergeant had been at the LAPD for 14 years when the riots began. He had always felt the police were part of the solution to any problem.
“I never thought we would end up with such civil unrest into a full-blown riot and that major portions of the community would burn and people would loot and do the things that were done. I was shocked, I really was.”
That afternoon two decades ago, three police officers were acquitted and one partially-acquitted in King’s beating.
Less than two miles away, the “flashpoint” of the riot erupted at the intersection of Normandie and Florence Avenues. Gannon recalled that a crowd comprised mostly of gang members took the intersection over. Many began drinking what they had looted from Tom’s Liquor and Deli. As traffic began backing up on the streets, the gang members forced their way into cars, breaking windows.
A group of LAPD officers and a supervisor approached the intersection with news helicopters flying above. The supervisor called the officers back after rioters began throwing rocks and bottles at them. The group was instructed to set up a command post at 54th Street and Van Ness Avenue - more than two miles away.
“The fact that the officers left the area just emboldened the gang members to think that they could do whatever they wanted to.”
Shortly after the officers left, a truck driver named Reginald Denny was pulled from his cab at the intersection and beaten unconscious by rioters. The news helicopters broadcast the footage live.
“It was such a horrific event that people couldn’t understand why wasn’t the Los Angeles Police Department doing something. Everybody in the world could see that this guy was getting pummeled and nobody was doing anything. And the officers felt horrible because they got pulled out.”
Gannon recalled that a couple officers returned to the intersection and saved a Korean woman who was being dragged out of her car by rioters. Hours later, the police ultimately shut the intersection down and brought officers to the scene.
During his shift, Gannon took a break from work.
“I walked out the back of the station and I could literally see plumes of smoke start to leapfrog as they bounced their way down Vermont Avenue as big buildings started burning. The radio was going crazy, people requesting help and we just didn’t have enough people to deal with everything that needed to be accomplished.”
After hours working at the station, Gannon organized a squad of 10 officers and himself to report to the command post. Driving on Slauson Avenue, the squad passed numerous burning buildings.
“There’s a business just east of Western on Slauson where as we drove by it, gunfire erupted and you could hear powpowpowpowpowpowpow! We didn’t know whether that gunfire was directed at us or not. I just hit the gas.”
Gannon found out later they had passed a swap meet where armed security guards were shooting at looters.
The violence and looting would calm down during the day, he said, but as soon as it was near dark, everything started up and things would start burning again.
Gannon worked through the night and received a break the next morning. He got home at around noon and returned to work six hours later.
“The one thing I always remember is the number of people yelling at us, that we were idiots, that we were awful, ya know, all four letter words, flipping us off. They’d yell hateful things: ‘you friggin’ pigs! You fuckin’ pigs!’ It was the worst where you have lost absolute control and there’s nothing you think you can do at that point.
“It was like everyone had gone absolutely crazy and my sense that there was only this many bad people,” Gannon gave a measure between his pointer finger and thumb, “and everybody else was really good, during that period of time I thought, where are the good people? Because I wasn’t seeing them. I was seeing so many people do really awful things, violent acts.”
Many officers showed a similar sense of hopelessness. Gannon saw newspaper photos of officers sitting on cars while people looted businesses nearby.
“The officers felt like, I don’t have enough police to do all this,” he said. “If I chase them away, they’re just going to come back because I can’t stay here all night and I got so much to do.”
The sergeant hadn’t faced the mounting anger between the community and police but had heard stories from fellow officers. Officers working the field told Gannon of being barraged with comments and feelings when they would make traffic stops, write tickets or respond to calls.
“Later on [those officers] said, yeah we felt it, we felt it every day, we felt the rise of tension in the community. Then people said, well you should have seen it coming. People that were in the community said, didn’t you realize this was such a hot button issue with the African American community? And we should’ve seen it, that was a big error on our part.”
He was surprised by how many people said they saw the riot coming.
“I thought, well if we knew then why didn’t we do something about it? Why weren’t we on top of it or in front of it?”
Even if Gannon had searched for a preventative plan, he wouldn’t have found one from police Chief Daryl Gates.
“He thought he had a plan,” Gannon said. “He used to wave around this big book and said, here is our plan. It was really not a plan, it was a tactical operations manual that we use in reference to different incidences. A plan is specific to an event and we weren’t ready for that. And nor did he see it coming or he never would have been at a fundraiser [the day the riots began].”
Although he was a sergeant at the time, Gannon took the failures of the police department personally. He was disappointed in himself for not doing enough.
“Whether it was my fault or not, I was just one person in a police department but I really took it as being my problem or my fault.”
Moving a career and a department forward
Today, Gannon is the deputy chief of LAPD’s South Bureau. Being promoted into further positions of authority, it became a personal mission to prevent another LA riot.
“As a police department, we police better. We handled our issues better, we weren’t as aggressive and forceful as we had been. And officers that were, we made sure they were held accountable for what they’ve done. We didn’t do well by that in those days.”
He also makes steps to plan for larger events and quell issues that cause community tension or anger.
“I’m not going to ignore these indicators anymore like some people did in those days. Even the mayor of Los Angeles and the police chief weren’t talking. How do you deal with such a sensitive issue when you’re not even talking?”
The department is reaching out to get the community’s concerns over Trayvon Martin’s death in Florida, the police shooting of Kendrec McDade in Pasadena and the 20th anniversary of the LA riots approaching.
“To me, that’s the start of a potential perfect storm. Up until when the special prosecutor in Florida decided to file charges and they arrested George Zimmerman, I was very concerned that if they didn’t do that - which I have no control over - how that would impact the city of Los Angeles.”
About three weeks ago, Gannon began meetings in the community.
“I’ve been saying we have Trayvon Martin, Pasadena, anniversary of the riots. Community, tell me, where are we? Are we in the same position we were in 1992 where we could have another riot or aren’t we? Is the relationship with the LAPD better now than it was in 1992 or should it be better?”
Gannon has heard a lot of anger over the death of Trayvon Martin and concern as to how something like that could happen and if it could happen in LA.
“I listen to people talk and sometimes they say, you’re responsible for all of this. And I’m thinking to myself, I am? I never pulled the trigger on my gun, how could I ever be responsible for something like this? But have we had instances where young black males were killed by officers? Absolutely. Have we had instances that were controversial shootings? Absolutely.”
Gannon said that people’s anger over Trayvon Martin isn’t necessarily just about Trayvon, but rekindles memories of controversial things the police have done or when the police have made a mistake and didn’t acknowledge it.
“When they see that happening in Florida, they bring up that sort of stuff as an example of what can happen here. And they ask the question, have you guys changed? Or are those same old things going to happen? Well I can’t promise that we won’t have a controversial shooting, I can’t.”
He used the Apr. 11 police shooting of Abdul Arian on the 101 freeway as an example. Arian had led police on a high-speed chase, then exited his car and appeared to be in an armed confrontation with officers. While watching the shooting on the news, Gannon thought the 19-year-old was pointing a gun at police.
“The officers shot and come to find out he didn’t have a gun, but he was actually pointing his cell phone like it was a gun. Now why would he do that? I hope that by going out and talking to people that they’ll say, well now I see how difficult a job that is for those police officers.”
Returning to his office, images on the wall remind Gannon every day of the LA riots. Two photographs show two different strip malls burning and motivate the deputy chief to repeat mistakes made in 1992.
“It’s not a night I want to relive, that’s for sure. I literally watched the city burn.”
Reach Senior News Editor Agnus Dei Farrant here.