L.A. Riots: LAPD's Terry Hara Highlights Department Changes
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 morning the Los Angeles Police Department sent its forces to contain rioting and looting in 1992, then-Sgt. Terry Hara hid every bit of fear he had. The mayhem he was sent to control became known as the L.A. riots.
From the freeway, he could see black smoke coming up from all over the city. Not only was he sent to the central location where all the looting was happening at the Rapid Transit District (RTD)—now Metro Transit Authority (MTA)—bus depot on 54th Street and Arlington Avenue, he led it. Critics say the world-renowned LAPD as a whole was simply not prepared for the rioting and looting, but as a leader, Hara suppressed his true feelings.
“Your sixth sense is always going to make sure you stay sharp,” Hara said. “If you don’t show your confidence, then the others who follow you won’t have confidence as well. I told the officers to stick together and watch each other’s backs, so that nobody gets hurt.”
He was 34 years old at the time, a young sergeant leading a group of policemen on a bus because there were not enough police cars to mobilize them.
“We were all loaded up on the bus and you could hear a pin drop,” Hara said. “They were quiet… Our whole mission was to ensure that people got out of the stores and boarded up the entrances so that people would not continue to loot the businesses in the area. That went on for several days.”
Over the next few days, the riots would cause 54 deaths and $1 billion in damage to the city. Hara didn’t witness any of the deaths, but he said he did see burned buildings that were mostly Korean-owned businesses set on fire, evidence of the tensions between communities.
“As a result of the riots, considerable efforts were made to bring the two communities together to have a better understanding of each other, and I think that has occurred,” Hara said. “But it takes the community wanting to help each other, as opposed to being forced to do it.”
Hara eventually became the first Asian American to take on one of the highest roles in the LAPD. He advanced to deputy chief in the Personnel and Training Bureau. It's his responsibility to to train members of the department to prepare for unexpected events like the L.A. riots.
“LAPD in 1992 was different. We would always go to community meetings and the community would always be very upset at the police department, for whatever reason,” Hara said. “And it was always an experience where the department couldn’t do it right, it seems, and it was always defending its position of whatever they were doing.”
But Hara says the department has learned, 20 years later, from its failures and has moved forward and beyond. Although once predominantly white and male, force demographics are reflective of L.A. today, more diverse in terms of race, gender and sexual orientation across the ranks. In 2000, women made up 18 percent of the agency, up 5 percent since 1990. Latinos and African Americans made up 31 percent of the department in 1992. Today, they make up about 54 percent.
“LAPD hires from the community. We have really a very, very diverse police department that is reflective of Los Angeles today,” Hara said. “And the benefits of that also is the fact that I think the community, when they see officers who look like them, there’s more sensitivity and understanding between both parties.”
In the last 20 years, the department has taken advantage of new technology to better serve the city. Some of their newer tools include computers in police cars, collapsible batons, improved tasers and pepper sprays. Improved DNA testing can now be used to prove a is innocent or guilty.
Hara said the department also uses a more problem-based format for training to overlap events instead of compartmentalizing subjects to make situations more real. If something like the L.A. riots happened today, he said, the department would use what they call mobile field force training, which would essentially send in responsive motors and vehicles to take control of the situation.
Still, according to Hara, the biggest change between 1992 and now in the department is the level of trust and openness of LAPD to the community. Although violence and complaints of power abuse still exist, the police department has come a long way to address those problems in working with the community to try to solve those problems.
“[The day the riots began] was a very sad day for LAPD and the victims,” Hara said. “Just in general, the whole city was expressing themselves in that manner that things needed to change. And things have changed. The police department has changed.”
The police department is more contemporary in thought and willing to work with the community and build trust.
“There was no trust between the police department and the community back then to the extent of how we have it today,” Hara said. “I think we’ve learned from that.”
See below for video coverage from ATVN on changes to local law enforcement.