I was a teenager staying with my mother in a small home off Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles on April 29, 1992. At 3:15 p.m., right as school was ending for the day, the media had announced the acquittals of the four accused Los Angeles Police Department officers in the Rodney King beating video. Approximately a half an hour later, a group of rioters gathered at Florence and Normandie Avenues in South Central Los Angeles and started looting a liquor store there. Meanwhile, at nearby 71st and Normandie, an altercation with officers had ensued and the word had come from Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley to LAPD Chief Daryl Gates to stand down and regroup with officers at a nearby bus depot.
Emboldened by the retreat of officers at 71st and Normandie, the crowds grew at Florence and Normandie. Just after 6 p.m., a group of 100 people looted Tom's Liquor store there, while the growing number of rioters in the street began attacking civilians of non-black appearance, pulling them from their vehicles to assault them when they stopped. At 6:43 p.m., truck driver Larry Tarvin, stopped at a red light there and was pulled from the truck to be kicked and beaten with a fire extinguisher. Then, another truck, driven by Reginald Denny, entered the intersection, where he was also dragged from his truck and severely beaten by the mob. This is where a rioter named Damian Williams threw a brick at Denny that struck him in the skull, fracturing it in 91 places.
Almost an hour after Denny was rescued, another beating was filmed on videotape in that location. Fidel Lopez, a Guatemalan construction worker, was pulled from his pickup and robbed by a mob that included Damian Williams, who smashed his forehead open with a car stereo while another rioter tried to slice his ear off. After Lopez lost consciousness, the crowd spray-painted his chest, torso and genitals black. He was eventually rescued by the Rev. Bennie Newton, who told the rioters: "Kill him and you have to kill me ,too."
Because of the order by Mayor Bradley, no effort was made to close the busy intersection of Florence and Normandie to traffic, arrest the mob or even secure the gun stores in the area (one in particular lost 1,150 guns to looting on April 29). The failure to have the LAPD respond to the intersection, which emboldened rioters in combination with the fact that television news helicopters were broadcasting the attacks, looting and arson were broadcast live so that viewers could see that none of these actions were being stopped by police, were credited to the start of the LA riots. By the time the riots had ended thanks to a military deployment to the city, 63 people had been killed, 2,383 people had been injured, more than 12,000 had been arrested and estimates of property damage were over $1 billion.
This was the first example of a riot that was televised live, where the elected mayor of a city contravened the recommendations of their law enforcement leaders to "let them vent." Twenty-eight years later, this tactic is still inexplicably allowed and used.
Since then, this example of political influence over the rule of law has resulted in horrifying loss of lives, property and community growth in places like Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore and Charlotte. In each instance, the political leaders of the area where a pre-riot flashpoint exists orders law enforcement to stand down to "let them vent" because they fear the optics of law enforcement intervention into civil unrest purportedly caused by a perceived police injustice. In every instance, the true cost of that elected leader ordering law enforcement to ignore their duties to uphold the law has resulted in a riot that far outweighed the negative optics of a crackdown at the flashpoint.
The latest example of this failure in leadership came this past week, as riots broke out throughout the United States over the murder of George Floyd, a suspect in custody by Minneapolis Police who was killed in a gross misuse of physical force by then-Officer Derek Chauvin. However, in contrast to the cases of Michael Brown in Missouri and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, there was no dispute to the official accounts in the Floyd case. The law enforcement community, mayor and pundits on both sides of the aisle agreed that Chauvin's actions were criminal. Within the week, all of the officers on the scene were fired and Chauvin was in jail. In contrast, this case was more similar to the 2015 murder of Walter Scott by [then] North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer Michael Slager, where the recorded incident received joint condemnations from both law enforcement and activists. No riots resulted from the Scott case.
However, seemingly coordinated rioting began by mid-week, first in Minneapolis and by the weekend at almost every major city in America. This led to questions by experts as to why and how, when the official reaction to what happened was in agreeance with protesters, did these riots that have now claimed the life of a federal security officer grow with such force?
With the rise in social media, flashpoints in riots are getting harder to control. This issue has been exacerbated by the growth and funding of activist groups that have been increasingly meeting the definition of domestic terrorist groups by organizing to commit crimes in the name of political or social objectives. Meanwhile, many local mayors and state governors continue to order law enforcement to "let them vent." This is largely due to a political calculation in where post-riot community backlash has been normally directed at the police and not the mayors who order them to stand down. Ironically, history has not judged some of these mayors well when the dust settles.
These riots have again exposed a fatal flaw in the politicization of law enforcement. It takes a great deal of training, education and experience to lead a big-city law enforcement agency. However, these leaders are appointed by elected officials who were affable and connected enough to be elected in their local political apparatus. In recent years, the two have clashed constantly, resulting in a resurgence in crime in some cities not seen since the "crack explosion" era of the 1980s and early 1990s.
What is desperately needed is for federal prosecutors to hold local officials accountable for failing to follow their sworn duties to uphold the rule of law. Throughout urban America, big-money progressive political action committees have been set up for local elections, mainly for mayoral and prosecutors' offices. While this tactic may be seen as a way to seed the next generations of governors and representatives, it has a dangerous effect on the public safety of the cities where these candidates win.
Every elected leader and law enforcement officer has to take an oath to uphold and defend the constitution of the United States and states they are sworn in. When they refuse to and people are victimized as a result, how are they held accountable? When Derek Chauvin and Michael Slager violated their oaths and broke the law, they were imprisoned. So why are the elected leaders allowing massive carnage in their name not also held accountable? It's time for Attorney General William Barr to examine this issue.
As for that high school kid who felt immense fear while watching the city burn? He moved back east and later became a member of the D.C. Police Civil Disturbance Unit, working numerous citywide disturbances before earning a master's degree and writing this column.
A. Benjamin Mannes, MA, CPP, CESP, is a Subject Matter Expert in Security & Criminal Justice Reform based on his two and a half decade career on both sides the criminal justice system. Mannes served in both federal and municipal law enforcement in though the 9/11 attacks, D.C.-area sniper task force, homeland security exercises and natural disasters. Mannes' work in D.C. led to personal encounters with the D.C.'s unlawful personnel actions, unconstitutional gun laws and criminal justice inequalities, which led him to become an advocate for public integrity. Thereafter, Mannes served for nearly nine years as the Director, Office of Investigations for North America's largest medical board, as a Chief Compliance Officer, consultant, expert witness, nonprofit board member and political adviser. Read A. Benjamin Mannes' Reports — More Here.
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