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

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.