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Police Chief Charlie Beck Says LAPD Failures Led To L.A. Riots

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Charlie Beck. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
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About 25 years ago, L.A. was set ablaze during a wave of unrest. Residents took to the streets just hours after a jury in Ventura County had acquitted four LAPD officers of beating Rodney King. At that time, LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck was a sergeant with the force. Today, Beck says that he looks back at that period as being a marker of the LAPD's failures.

The L.A. Times published on Thursday a piece written by Beck. In it, Beck talked about the factors that led to the riots, namely the LAPD's hardline policing that focused on detaining people, rather than getting at the root of community issues:

[After] years of trying to arrest our way out of the problem, it became obvious that our efforts only contributed to the violence. Worse yet, they alienated the policed to the point that, in retrospect, the riot was inevitable.

Beck said that the department's mentality was all-encompassing, and that it was fracturing the community rather than servicing it. Basically, it took on an us-versus-them ideology:

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Unfortunately, when we declare war, several things happen. We cause collateral damage, which erodes whatever moral high ground led to the declaration. Our “opponents” — now unified — possess their own moral mandate for counterattacks. This is what we did when we declared war on our own communities during the 1980s and 1990s. That is what we risk doing today, when we declare war on our own immigrant communities.

Beck also mentioned Daryl Gates, who was police chief at the time of the unrest. He discuses Gates only briefly (he mentions a fishing trip they'd taken together once) but his depiction falls in line with widely held opinions of the former police chief—namely, that Gates had failed to recognize his own role in the chaos. "Former Chief Gates attributed the riots of 1992 to the leadership failures of just two individuals in the department; he did not view it as an organizational issue," said Beck.

As noted by the Times in 2010, Gates' "troops were arrogant and aggressive in their policing, and the cost was catastrophic. Many unarmed suspects were killed by officers, who rarely had to answer for their actions." He also began "massive South L.A. 'sweeps,' in which thousands of black men were indiscriminately arrested." These tensions would come to a boil after the officers who'd brutalized Rodney King were let go. Gates would resign just months after the unrest, but he left behind a legacy that the LAPD had a hard time shaking. "His successors spectacularly failed to tame the paramilitary culture that had ossified under Gates," said the Times.

Beck, in Thursday's article, said he deviated from Gates' stance on the riots: "I very respectfully disagree with my former chief on this issue: I think the Los Angeles Police Department as an organization had everything to do with those awful days in the spring of 1992."

Beck spoke of the LAPD's failures up to the riots, but what's missing is an account of what had happened during the unrest. As noted in a 1992 Times article, residents from Koreatown and the Pico-Union area said that officers had practically abandoned them during the tumult. Gates, himself, was also absent: at the start of the riots he was at a Brentwood event that was fundraising for efforts to defeat a charter amendment that would limit the tenure of LAPD chiefs. "Rudderless and utterly unprepared, the LAPD watched with the rest of us as the city burned," said the Times in an article published on Friday.

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While Beck's article mostly focused on the past and skimmed over the riots itself, he did point to the future towards the end, writing "It is my promise to Los Angeles that we will never forget those lessons so dearly learned and that we will never fail you again."