The One Key Lesson Baltimore Cops Didn’t Learn from the L.A. Riots

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On the night of April 29, 1992, hours after the outbreak of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, I was off-duty but reported to the LAPD station where I was working at the time.  I was in a plainclothes assignment, but I wanted to provide whatever assistance I could to a situation that was worsening by the minute.  “Can I help?” I asked the watch commander.

“You got a uniform?” he said.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Put it on,” he said, “and get to the front.”

At that hour “the front” was amorphous, with large swaths of Los Angeles already in flames, mostly confined to the major commercial thoroughfares of South Central L.A.  I was teamed up with about ten other cops, and we were directed to the intersection of Manchester and Vermont Avenues, where looting had been reported.  When we arrived minutes later, we found the buildings on all four corners ablaze, the contents already having been looted.  It was much the same throughout the riot zone as dispatchers and responding officers couldn’t keep pace with the looters and arsonists.  By the time officers responded to a call, the business had already been looted and put to the torch.

It was clear to us that conventional methods of responding to trouble were ineffective, so the sergeant in our little squad, a man blessed with more wisdom than most of those above him in the chain of command, made the decision to improvise.  We would select a zone where businesses had not yet been hit and protect them from any encroaching rioters.  We stayed on the move and confronted looters where we found them, dispersing them with a bare minimum of force.  In the area we protected, some stores were damaged and looted, but none was burned.

I spent that night and the next two working 12-hour shifts, which stretched into 14 or 15 by the time we finished checking in equipment and processing paperwork related to the arrests we had made.  I went home, caught a few hours of sleep, then went back and did it all again.  It wasn’t until the riot had been largely suppressed that I had a chance to watch the news coverage of what had occurred while I slept.  I was astounded to see video of phalanxes of police officers surrounding fire engines while just across the street hundreds of looters were joyously helping themselves to anything that could be pulled from store shelves and carried off.

I came to learn that officers had been ordered to protect firefighters -- which was necessary, of course -- and to ignore the looting that was happening right next door or across the street from the burning building.  What most often happened was that when there was nothing left to steal, those buildings would be set on fire too.  (At least the firefighters didn’t have too far to drive to their next call.)