Experience is the best teacher, and London’s Metropolitan Police should have learned a lot in the weeks since thousands of rioters looted and burned swaths of the city in response to a police shooting in Tottenham. Much like the Los Angeles Police Department in 1992, where officers had to develop tactics on the run, the police in London adapted, coalesced, and brought relative calm to the city after three days and nights of widespread violence. And also like the LAPD after 1992, London police are incorporating into their routines the lessons they’ve learned. If another riot should break out in London, the police will be better prepared to quell the unrest.
London’s violence stirred unpleasant memories for me. I was working as a police officer in South Los Angeles on April 29, 1992, the day the not-guilty verdicts were announced in the trial of the four LAPD officers accused of beating Rodney King. Like most of my coworkers (but few of my superiors), I expected that an acquittal would spark trouble. My colleagues and I had just served a search warrant and made an arrest when we learned that the verdicts were about to come down. To our arrestee’s chagrin, we made ourselves at home in his living room and watched on his television as the verdicts were read, each successive “not guilty” adding to our own elation but only compounding the misery for the man forced to watch in handcuffs on his own sofa.
The drive back to the station took us by a public-housing project. Residents were already out in large numbers expressing their displeasure at the verdicts to passing motorists, especially us. We exchanged waves with the project dwellers—we using all of our fingers, most of them using just one. A bottle or two flew our way but landed in the street without effect, and we continued on to the station. I was certain that as soon as we arrived, we would be told to don helmets and face shields and report to some command post for deployment.
To our astonishment, when we had finished processing our arrestee, we were directed to go home. The situation, our commanders informed us, was “under control.” We had been monitoring police-radio frequencies and watching news reports as rioting spread across South Los Angeles. Like everyone else, we were horrified at the sight of Reginald Denny being pulled from his truck and beaten nearly to death at the intersection of Florence and Normandie Avenues, every blow broadcast live from a circling news helicopter. I would later learn of the failure of one LAPD lieutenant to take action at Florence and Normandie during the riot’s opening moments, a failure that, in my opinion, opened the door for much of what followed.
But I went home as instructed, watching smoke from the many fires rising as I drove down the freeway. Once home, I watched on television as the rioting spread further, and I expected at any moment to be called back to work. The call never came, but eventually I drove back to my police station and reported for duty anyway. I ended up in a ten-man team, assigned to quell the violence where we could. Someone high in the LAPD chain of command had decided that officers should try to respond to the hundreds of radio calls coming in from across the riot zone, which by now covered a huge area of South Los Angeles. Officers couldn’t keep up with the volume of calls; arsonists and looters would flee burning buildings long before police arrived.
Our supervisor, a man blessed with more common sense than his commanders, decided that we should operate more independently. We actively sought out people engaged in looting. They weren’t hard to find. The ten of us were unable to arrest even a small fraction of the hundreds of looters we encountered, but we let it be known that we weren’t about to stand by and watch as people stripped store shelves bare and put buildings to the torch. In most cases, it didn’t take much of a display of force to make people disperse. Yes, some of the more hostile looters required extra persuasion in the form of a shove in the back or a crack across the legs with a baton, but most were pacified with little effort.
The mere arrival of police officers set on restoring some semblance of law and order deterred the great majority of looters. From midnight until 8 or 9 A.M., we claimed a small area of South L.A. as our own and, racing back and forth across our zone several times, scattered looters here and there and prevented any buildings in the area from going up in flames that night (though some would burn later). It was a modest victory.
In one sense, London’s ineffective response to the violence on the first three nights is more understandable than was the LAPD’s failure to control rioting in 1992. L.A.’s riot came at the conclusion of a long and contentious criminal trial, the outcome of which clearly would placate or enrage segments of the city’s population. The police in Los Angeles had weeks, if not months, to prepare for trouble. Yet like most officers at the time, I received no training in crowd-control techniques; nor was I instructed on any planned response to violence. When violence did break out, the ten of us thrown together that night adopted tactics on the fly, and I was fortunate to have a supervisor who could think on his feet and not wait for orders from a chain of command in disarray.
Unlike the L.A. riots, the recent violence in London erupted spontaneously, leaving the police without the opportunity to train and deploy for what was to come. Riot control is unlike any other aspect of policing, requiring the coordinated movement of large numbers of officers. Such tactics are rarely necessary in ordinary police work. The infrequency of large-scale riots, moreover, means that the lessons learned when they do happen tend to be lost over time.
And that may be, in turn, London’s lesson for Los Angeles today. I am one of the few officers remaining on the LAPD who served through the 1992 riots. After producing a critical assessment of its response, the LAPD ordered all officers instructed in crowd-control techniques, or “mobile field-force tactics,” as they are known in the department. Over the next year, every officer in the department spent a few days on the hot asphalt of the Dodger Stadium parking lot practicing how to confront and disperse hostile crowds. These methods were used to great effect in the coming years when potentially volatile events occurred. Unlike the message it projected when the riots broke out in 1992, the LAPD made clear that it would come down hard on any aspiring troublemakers.
But taking so many officers off the streets for training is costly, both to the budget and to crime-fighting efforts, and the LAPD has since curtailed most of its riot-control instruction. Most officers haven’t received this type of training in a long while, leaving the city vulnerable should some incident spark a riot. From the looks of things, the police in England hadn’t had much riot-control training, either. “We recognize we didn’t always get it right during the rioting,” said Metropolitan Police detective chief superintendent Alaric Bonthron at a recent Olympics planning conference. “We are reassessing plans in light of what happened during the riots to make sure the resources we have . . . match the risk.” Given the lessons of Los Angeles 20 years ago, and those of London more recently, the LAPD would do well to reassess its own plans, too.