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.)

I was reminded of this as I watched the chaos unfolding in Baltimore on Monday.  It was clear from the television coverage that “restraint” was the order of the day for the police officers forced to stand idly by as stores were looted and burned.  Even worse, cops stood like so many cigar store Indians as thugs showered them with rocks, bottles, and bricks from as little as 20 feet away.  None of their commanders, it seemed, wanted to be the one to give the order to take control.

If there was a lesson the LAPD learned in 1992, it is that if you do not respond decisively to lawlessness, you will quickly have much more of it.  That lesson was learned the hard way, when timid police supervisors (one of them in particular most egregiously) failed to act when violence first flared near the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues.  I would argue that had the LAPD responded as it should have in those first hours of the riot, much of the devastation and loss of life that followed could have been averted.  Proof of this came in the following months when a number of incidents in South Los Angeles threatened to break out into rioting but were quelled with a swift and sure response by police.

It is clear that authorities in Baltimore have not heeded this simple lesson.  In showing restraint, in sending the clear message that lawlessness will not be swiftly and harshly met, they have allowed their city to descend into chaos.  And in so allowing, they have ensured that a greater level of force will be required to restore order than would have been had they taken action at the first sign of violence.  At the time of this writing no one has yet been killed in Baltimore, but that will likely have changed by the time you read this.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake gave instructions to police that protesters be given “space” to exercise their right to free speech.  But in doing so, she admitted, “we also gave those who wished to destroy space to do that as well.”

And who would have dared think that could happen?  Only anyone who had studied episodes of urban rioting in America for the last 50 years.  Witness the events in Miami in 1989, Crown Heights in 1991, Los Angeles in 1992, Oakland in 2009, and just last year in Ferguson, Mo.  In these riots and in too many others to list, we saw political leaders unwilling to take the actions necessary to maintain order in their cities, with the harvest being the destruction of businesses, injuries and deaths, added to which are economic consequences that have endured for years.

Just moments ago I watched on CNN as Mayor Rawlings-Blake lamely defended her decision to show restraint in dealing with the rioters.  Surely she knows that in the parts of Baltimore where the rioting is ongoing there are vacant lots where stood buildings that burned in the city’s riot of 1968.  Earlier today I watched a CVS pharmacy being looted and burned in West Baltimore.  Does the mayor expect CVS to rebuild in that spot or anywhere near it when she has publicly announced she will do nothing to prevent the same thing from happening the next time the “community” vents its anger?

We are told that the National Guard and police reinforcements are on their way, for which we can be grateful, but the damage to Baltimore is already done.  Where that CVS stood until today will be a vacant lot for the next 50 years.

(Artwork created using multiple images from AP and Shutterstock.com.)