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Controversy over Rodney King Beating and L.A. Riots Reignites

As the LAPD prepares to honor former Chief Daryl Gates at his funeral, people ask how the riots might have been prevented or, failing that, diminished in scope.

by
Jack Dunphy

Bio

April 26, 2010 - 12:03 am

My most recent column here on PJ Media concerned former Los Angeles Police Department Chief Daryl Gates, more specifically the editorial published in the Los Angeles Times on the occasion of his death last Friday. Gates was, to understate the matter considerably, a controversial figure here in Los Angeles, and no aspect of his 42-year career with the LAPD was more controversial than his role in the Rodney King affair, to which the Times devoted fully a third of the editorial. Though they offered some backhanded compliments, the editors made it clear they regarded Daryl Gates as a villain, not least for his role in the Rodney King affair.

On this there is vehement disagreement with most LAPD officers, not only those who were on the job during the Rodney King saga, but even those who joined the department in the years since.  Daryl Gates remained a respected and beloved figure to most in the LAPD, and I suspect there will be no little grumbling and gnashing of teeth in the Los Angeles Times offices on Tuesday when traffic in downtown Los Angeles is snarled by what will surely be a massive tribute as his funeral Mass is held in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Recall that it was Rodney King who, at the end of a high-speed car chase, was violently subdued by LAPD officers on March 3, 1991, an incident that was captured on videotape by a resident in a nearby apartment building. Three police officers and a sergeant were charged in state court with a total of eleven counts, and when their trial concluded on April 29, 1992, they were acquitted of all but one of them, on which the jury voted 8-4 in favor of acquitting the accused officer.

Later that Wednesday afternoon, Los Angeles broke out in rioting that wasn’t quelled until Saturday. Sporadic violence continued until the following Monday, and when the curfew at last was lifted, fifty-three people were dead and large swaths of the city’s commercial districts had been looted and reduced to ashes.

The city was then consumed by the non-violent but no less contentious spectacle of the battle between Daryl Gates and his supporters on one side and those who sought to blame him both for the Rodney King beating itself and the riots it engendered on the other. The police chief’s foes included then-Mayor Tom Bradley, many members of the city council, and nearly the entire Los Angeles media establishment, most especially the Los Angeles Times. Gates resisted the effort to oust him, but he ultimately yielded and retired on June 28, 1992.

Gates’s death has to some extent revived the controversy over the Rodney King beating and its aftermath. Even today, in neighborhoods across South Central Los Angeles, there are visible  scars from the riots in the form of vacant lots where businesses once stood, and now as the LAPD prepares to honor its former chief at his funeral, people ask how the riots might have been prevented or, failing that, diminished in scope.

As I noted in the previous column, former Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon wrote an exhaustive book on the Rodney King affair, Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD. The book is more than 700 pages long, including its endnotes and bibliography, and needless to say, it explores the incident in far greater detail than I am able to here. But among Cannon’s conclusions was that the jury’s verdict was not, as was widely believed, an inexplicable conclusion based on racial prejudice or other biases, but rather a logical and even predictable result of a poorly presented prosecution case coupled with a vigorous and skillful defense, one that revealed the entire videotape of the beating, not just the inflammatory portion that was endlessly shown on television.

I present all this history as background to examine what became, in the comments to my earlier column, a debate on who should bear culpability for the LAPD’s failure to put down the riots in those first hours after the verdicts were announced. In considering what follows, one must remember that in commenting on an Internet site such as this one, a reader may use any name he chooses, and he may also claim a level of knowledge or expertise that of course cannot be verified.

That said, one commenter identified himself as Michael N. Moulin, a retired LAPD lieutenant who played a pivotal role in the first moments of the riots. Given that his comments comport with what Moulin has said in published and broadcast interviews, and that a check of computer IP addresses indicates the comments were posted from Mexico, where Moulin is known to reside, I proceed here in the presumption that the man is in fact who he claims to be. Also, when Moulin submitted his comments he provided an e-mail address which also indicated an origin in Mexico. I sent an e-mail to that address three days ago asking Moulin for some additional information, but as I write this I have yet to receive a reply.

Moulin used his comments as a platform to sully Daryl Gates’s memory and to insult the many officers who hold the former police chief in high regard. He also defended his decision to withdraw the officers under his command from the flash point of the riots, a decision that was condemned by Gates and cited by the Webster Commission, formed to investigate the Rodney King affair, as a “critical error” that contributed to the riot’s escalation. Perhaps worse, he closed one of his comments with this contemptible postscript: “I had the last word Daryl, may you rest in peace!”

This brought a number of responses from people claiming — credibly, in my opinion — to have known Moulin during his time with the LAPD, including some who worked under him during those pivotal hours as the rioting began. The back-and-forth commentary was spirited, if at times sophomoric, but given the conflicting claims, I thought readers might welcome a follow-up column on the riots and an examination of those first hours after the officers accused of beating Rodney King were acquitted.

On April 29, 1992, Moulin was the night watch commander at the LAPD’s 77th Street Division, in South Central Los Angeles. Although there were minor confrontations with police elsewhere in the city after news of the officers’ acquittal was broadcast, it is generally acknowledged that the flash point of the riots can be placed at the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues, about six and a half miles southwest of downtown Los Angeles and a mile and half west of the 77th Street Police Station. The genesis of the riots was described in an episode of ABC’s Nightline, titled “Anatomy of a Riot” (available for viewing online in three parts, here, here, and here).

On the program, a gang member tells the interviewer what happened that day at 4:15 p.m., about an hour after the acquittals were announced. “From my understanding,” he says, “people went to the store [the Pay-less Liquor and Deli, on Florence just west of Normandie] and just decided they weren’t going to pay for what they were getting. They were stopped at the door, and at that point [store owner] Mr. Lee’s son was hit in the head with a bottle of beer.” As reported by Lou Cannon, two other youths threw beer bottles at the store’s glass front door, shattering it. “This is for Rodney King,” one of them yelled. The Webster Commission identified this robbery as the first incident of the riots. (Cannon reported on the riots in the May 10, 1992, edition of the Washington Post.  The article is available online for a fee here.)

The Nightline episode compresses the timeline of the events that immediately followed, leaving the viewer with the impression that this robbery directly resulted in a clash between police officers and rioters. This was not the case. Two 77th Street officers responded to the liquor store and, finding the suspects had fled, completed a report. They were leaving the store at about 5:25 p.m. when they heard a radio broadcast of a disturbance at Florence and Halldale, a block to the east. A young black man, cheered on by several others, was using an aluminum baseball bat to break the windshield of a Cadillac with two white men inside. The man with the bat was arrested, but officers who responded to the call came under a barrage of rocks, bottles, and anything else that could be picked up and thrown.

Officers broadcast a request for assistance, and several police cars came racing to the scene. Freelance photographer Bart Bartholomew was in the area on assignment for the New York Times and, driving his Volvo sedan, followed a line of police cars to the area of Florence and Normandie, parking just north of Florence on 71st Street. The police had just chased a gang member who had been throwing rocks, capturing him near 71st Street and Normandie where Bartholomew started taking pictures.

Having handcuffed the rock thrower, the officers next contended with a group of gang members who attempted to wrest him away from their custody. Lieutenant Moulin was at the scene and, seeing that his officers were greatly outnumbered and that most were not wearing helmets to protect against the projectiles still being hurled at them, he ordered them to leave the area in the apparent hope that the situation would de-escalate on its own. Bartholomew later told Nightline that the 30 officers present were faced with about 150 very angry people, so it was not entirely unreasonable for Moulin to give his order to pull out. I’ve given similar orders myself, though admittedly in situations less charged than the one facing Moulin that day.

However, to ensure such a maneuver is not counterproductive, it has to be conducted in an orderly fashion, that is to say without conveying a sense of fear or panic. This was not done. Bartholomew described one of the photographs he took of the departing police officers as “clearly show[ing] the retreat in motion.” And after pulling out, Moulin should have directed some number of officers to remain at a distance but visible in the area so as to maintain a police presence and monitor whatever might follow. When the crowd did not disperse but instead grew larger and more violent, Moulin had an obligation, indeed an absolute duty, to gather as many officers as were available and then use them to restore order in the area. If, as he claims, he lacked sufficient resources to engage the rioters, he should have taken steps to divert traffic around the intersection of Florence and Normandie and prevent innocent people from driving into the maelstrom. This he failed to do.

“The crowd was very empowered by this [retreat],” said Bartholomew. “It was clearly a victory for them.” Sadly for him, with the police now gone he found himself the only white person on 71st Street. While walking to his car he was surrounded by a mob, and once inside the car he was struck in the face with a chunk of concrete and his cameras were stolen. One man in the crowd helped him escape, and had he not done so, Bartholomew might well have been the first fatality of the riots.

Bartholomew was able to drive out of the area and catch up with a group of officers, including Lt. Moulin, who had gathered at the intersection of Florence and Hoover Street, less than a mile east of Normandie. Bartholomew had a large contusion on the side of his face, so Moulin drove him to the nearby police station and summoned paramedics to meet him there. An officer drove Bartholomew’s car to the station. Bartholomew was the last person to be helped by Moulin that day.

Rather than focusing on his mission to protect lives and restore order, Moulin chose to leave the field and drive Bartholomew to the police station, where he then conferred with his commanding officer, Captain Paul Jefferson. Moulin’s and Jefferson’s accounts of this conversation diverge on the critical question of what directions the captain gave his lieutenant. According to Lou Cannon, Jefferson maintained he told Moulin to return to Florence and Normandie and restore order. Moulin’s account is that Jefferson told him to go and “assess” the situation before responding to a command post being set up at a municipal bus yard at 54th Street and Arlington Avenue, about two and a quarter miles northwest of Florence and Normandie.

But whatever Jefferson’s orders might have been, the conversation itself should never have taken place. Moulin should have had others attend to Bartholomew while he remained in the field and directed his officers to retake Florence and Normandie, or at least to prevent unwary motorists from driving through and falling victim to the violence that was occurring.

In his comments to my earlier column, Moulin wrote, “I was the Lieutenant that Gates blamed for pulling out our unprepared, poorly trained and under deployed officers on the night of April 24th [sic] 1992. I accept full responsibility for all of my actions and would do the very same thing again in a heart beat. I blame no one for my decisions!”

Later, after others weighed in and strongly opined that Moulin’s decision was disastrous, especially for those unfortunates who were attacked by the mob at Florence and Normandie, Moulin wrote the following: “May I remind you, that these were angry citizens not thugs or animals.”

Fine. Let’s examine how these citizens chose to express their anger while Moulin conjured up his excuse to stay away. When two 77th officers narrowly escaped after rescuing a badly beaten Korean-American woman at 71st Street and Normandie, Moulin directed that no further rescues be attempted. And when another assault was reported at that same intersection, Moulin radioed, “We’ll just take that information … for the present time we are not going into that area and search any further for anybody. I want all my units at [the command post at] 54th and Arlington.” It was about 6:15 p.m.

A half-hour later, 52-year-old Larry Tarvin, a white truck driver, entered the intersection of Florence and Normandie only to realize too late what was happening. He was dragged from his truck and mercilessly beaten. On a videotape of the incident shown on Nightline, an onlooker can be heard saying, “Now you know what Rodney King felt like, white boy. … No f***ing pity for the white man.”

A few minutes later, as hovering news helicopters broadcast the horrifying tableau to the world, Reginald Denny attempted to drive his tractor-trailer rig loaded with gravel through the intersection. He too was pulled from his truck and savagely beaten while reporters in the helicopters expressed their amazement that there were no police to be seen in the area.

At about the same time, Raul Aguilar, a Belizean immigrant, was beaten into a coma and had his legs run over by a car. Takao Hirata, a Japanese American, was pulled from his car and beaten unconscious. Fidel Lopez was beaten senseless, then was stripped of his pants and had his genitals and lower body sprayed with black paint. “He’s black now,” said an onlooker.

In a later comment Moulin wrote, “Would you rather have had a bunch of dead people at that intersection … ?”

To which I would answer, it depends on who the dead people were. If, for example, a police officer had shot and killed Damian “Football” Williams to prevent him from launching that chunk of concrete at a helpless Reginald Denny’s head, I would have accepted it as a satisfactory, even desirable, outcome. In addition to sparing Denny from a nearly fatal injury, it would have had the added and not entirely unforeseeable benefit of saving the life of the man whom Williams was convicted of murdering eight years later. And if the pile of corpses also included those responsible for the other attacks described above, for me, that too would have been far preferable to what actually occurred.

On Nightline, Ted Koppel described the images broadcast from Florence and Normandie thus:

Tens of millions of people are mesmerized by what is happening in and around that crossroad of South Central Los Angeles. It is television at its most riveting and horrifying. But live TV also becomes the carrier of a virus. At one and the same time, television conveys the fever of street violence and the impotence of the police.

No one was more impotent in that hour of crisis than Lieutenant Michael Moulin.

Discussing that day’s events with Nightline, Moulin said, “I don’t know who was running the show. And I don’t think anyone can tell you who was running the show. The show was kind of just running itself.” He pointed out that at the time the verdicts were announced, most LAPD captains were at a training seminar in Ventura, almost a two-hour’s drive up the coast from Los Angeles, and that other breakdowns in the LAPD command structure also detracted from the department’s ability to respond to the riot.

All of which is true. But the man running the show at Florence and Normandie when the riot began was Michael Moulin. Or rather it should have been. Why he needed direction from above to take action and do what so obviously needed doing remains a mystery, but it is painfully clear he was unqualified to be a watch commander at 77th Street Division, or anywhere else.

LAPD officers accept the fact that when immediate tactical decisions are required, almost no one above the rank of sergeant is qualified to make them. The absence of so many captains in those early hours of the riot was hardly an impediment to an effective response, and may in fact have been a blessing. Had all those captains been added to the mess already in place, the city might have burned for weeks rather than days.

In speaking of the riots, I’ve often said that if some in the LAPD had been in charge of the D-Day invasion of France, when the paratroopers dropped into the wrong landing zones and the infantry came ashore on the wrong stretches of beach, they would have been ordered to return to England and try it again later. As it happened, leaders emerged among the soldiers to bring order to the chaos and accomplish the mission. “Berlin is that way,” they said, “and the war starts here.”

It was that kind of leadership that was desperately needed but tragically absent that day at Florence and Normandie. If Michael Moulin had been in command of a platoon on D-Day, he never would have made it off the beach.

Yes, Mr. Moulin, you have outlived Daryl Gates and, as you said, had the last word. But on Tuesday Gates will be mourned by thousands at his funeral. I wish you a long and healthy life, but someday you, too, will get sick and die. When that day comes, how many of your former colleagues will mourn for you?

Jack Dunphy is the pseudonym of a police officer in Southern California.
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