LOS ANGELES, MAY 1 -- On the 20th anniversary of the devastating 1965 Watts riots, Police Chief Daryl F. Gates predicted that further such uprisings were unlikely, but said they would be quickly put down if they occurred.
"We would stop it the first night," Gates told United Press International.
But on Wednesday, when motorists first were dragged from their cars and beaten, and violence began to escalate into massive looting and destruction that quickly engulfed south-central Los Angeles and spread through the city, the police response was tardy and incoherent. Gates left his post two hours after the violence began to attend a fund-raising cocktail reception in upscale Brentwood, where he spoke against a police reform ballot initiative.
Not until Thursday evening did a coherent police strategy emerge. Not until this morning, nearly 40 hours after the initial outbreak, was a significant police and military presence apparent on the streets of Los Angeles.
City, state and police officials, reviewing the breakdowns, today painted a dismal picture of planning failures, bureaucratic blunders and logistical mixups, which they said allowed looters and arsonists to move unhindered through vast areas of the city. These officials said the police failed to move in quickly enough, did not use sufficient force when they did arrive and did not make enough arrests. They said the National Guard, after being ordered into action late Wednesday by Gov. Pete Wilson (R), remained in staging areas because of a lack of ammunition and was used only hesitantly by the police in the initial hours after its deployment.
"I saw my first guardsmen in front of City Hall this morning," said Los Angeles Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who believes the slowness of both the police and the Guard response allowed "anarchy" to spread.
Rank-and-file police officers on the front lines of the war zone were equally frustrated.
"We weren't told what to do," said a distraught police sergeant standing in front of a burning supermarket early this morning. "We were not told to crack down on people, we were not told to take charge. We were not really told what to do at all. All we can do is kind of wrap a bandage around a hemorrhage. We have no power to stop this."
Much of the blame was placed on Gates, who a source familiar with police planning said was totally unprepared for the Wednesday verdicts virtually exonerating four Los Angeles Police Department officers charged with beating Rodney G. King. Though Gates told Mayor Tom Bradley three weeks ago that the police were ready for any eventuality, the source said Gates "spent the intervening time engaging in public relations stunts, such as his videotape message to officers to act professionally. It was all PR and no police planning. Gates was a commander who failed to lead his troops."
The immediate problems of managing the disturbances appeared on the way to solution today with about 8,000 police or guardsmen deployed on city streets. These included 4,500 National Guardsmen, 2,400 police officers and 1,200 California Highway Patrol officers. Another 1,500 guardsmen and 1,300 CHP officers remained in reserve.
Four-thousand U.S. soldiers and Marines ordered to the scene by President Bush were on standby at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station 50 miles south of the city.
"We sure hope that the National Guard can help, because we've lost control here," said police Sgt. Gene Collins, clutching his gun as rioters ducked into back streets behind him early this morning.
The feeling of losing control was widely shared on the streets by police and civilians alike during the 40 turbulent hours after motorists were severely beaten Wednesday at the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues, where the violence began.
"They have done nothing to protect us," said store owner Steve Woo about the police as he clutched his gun. "They're never there when you need them."
"People would have burned down that building if I had not yelled at them with a bullhorn to stop," said David Evans, as he pointed to a Chinese restaurant on Olympic Boulevard. "I said I was the LAPD, which I'm not. The police are not around so we have to step in and defend our own neighborhoods."
But the police were as frustrated as the civilians they were assigned to protect. Officers said they had no mandate from the top besides being told to keep the peace and not to fire unless fired upon. Some officers on the street had not been born when the Watts riots occurred, and few had received riot training. When the uprising came, they were left largely to their own devices.
"We're not getting any clear signals from the leadership about what to do," said a 10-year veteran of the LAPD. "I guess the reason is that the leadership is going through its own changes. Still, it kind of leaves us without much of a rudder."
Gates is scheduled to step down as chief late in June and be replaced by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Willie L. Williams.
The Los Angeles Police Department prides itself on being a paramilitary force with a definite chain of command. Without orders, officers seemed baffled by the conduct of looters.
Their dilemma was shown in the conduct of one officer during the looting of a department store in the Crenshaw area Thursday. A television shot showed the officer drawing his gun to confront two looters who were driving away from the store after shoving boxes in the trunk of their car. Then the officer put his gun back in the holster and allowed the looters to drive away.
Several city officials said that the initial lack of police response was an invitation to looting.
"We were not prepared," said Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who charged "the officers were not interested in going into the area."
Councilman Yaroslavsky said that the message that went out on television in the first two hours of violence was "that there was no law, no order -- it was a message that said to the worst elements, 'Let's go and burn down the city and loot it.' "
While the police were plagued by lack of preparedness, the Guard was hampered first by resistance from Gates and then by a bureaucratic inability to deploy Guard units that had been ordered into Los Angeles.
Today, with guardsmen on nearly every corner, looting diminished notably in the riot area. But state and city officials agreed that this result should have been achieved much sooner.
Three hours after the violence started, Wilson called Mayor Tom Bradley and offered to send in any Guard units he needed. Later that night, in a conference call with Bradley and the governor, Gates and Los Angeles Sheriff Sherman Block argued that the Guard was not needed. According to sources familiar with this conversation, Bradley overruled them and Wilson announced that 2,000 guardsmen would be sent to Los Angeles. By 3 a.m. Thursday the first 800 of these troops were in barracks in Los Angeles.
But Wilson learned in a conference call nine hours later with Gates, Block and CHP and National Guard representatives that the Guard still had not been deployed. He was told that specific tasks for the Guard had not been assigned.
According to aide Dan Schnur, Wilson called again at 2 p.m. and was told that the Guard was still not on the streets. This time the explanation was that most of the ammunition for the Guard's M-16 rifles had not arrived from Camp Roberts, more than 200 miles away.
Wilson asked the Guard commanders if they had enough ammunition to send out some of their units. He was told they did, but when he called again at 4 p.m. the Guard still had not been deployed. By now, Wilson was described as frustrated and furious, emotions that were mirrored among weary policemen and discouraged store owners who were facing an uphill battle with looters.
According to sources familiar with the decision-making process, it was the slowness of the Guard's response that led Wilson, at 1:15 a.m. PST today, to call Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner and ask for federal troops.
The problem with the Guard in part resembled the problem facing the LAPD -- a lack of riot training or preparedness for an uprising. This made little sense to political officials such as Yaroslavsky, who said, "What do we have a National Guard for? The only reason to call up the Guard is to deploy them."
One reason for the slowness of the deployment, a Guard official suggested anonymously, is that commanders were not eager to place their troops in the cauldron of south-central Los Angeles. This also may have been a reason why the police moved so slowly. Though no police officer has been killed in the violence, several have been fired upon and two were wounded this morning by gunfire from an AK-47 automatic weapon.
Other police, daunted by the heavy publicity given to the Rodney King case, seemed reluctant to exert too much force. "There are a lot of mixed feelings in the department about the King case," a veteran officer said. "I am angry and upset with how these people are reacting. But I can also understand their frustration."
Some police officers were not as understanding. While there were few confrontations between police and civilians, racial tension was evident in the riot area. In discussions between the two groups about the King case, the civilians tended to condemn the verdict and police to minimize its importance.
Gates was described by a police source as "almost completely out of it, more of a politician than a police chief." The chief acknowledged that he made a mistake in attending a political fund-raiser while the rioting was starting, but claimed in interviews that he had done the best he could to prepare for the violence that devastated Los Angeles.
Staff researcher Mark Stencel in Washington contributed to this report.