When the Rodney King riots broke out in Los Angeles in April 1992, I spent three straight nights chasing looters around South Central Los Angeles. In those first few chaotic nights my 12-hour shift stretched to 15 or 16, so until the riot was suppressed I spent my nights working then raced home at nine or ten in the morning for a meal and a few hours’ rest before returning to work at six in the evening.
It wasn’t until calm returned to Los Angeles that I was able to watch some of the news coverage of what was going on during the day. I was shocked and embarrassed to see how some in the LAPD were conducting themselves while I slept. There had been several assaults on firefighters, including one shot in the face as his rig was racing to a fire on Western Avenue, so protecting them was placed at the top of the LAPD’s list of priorities.
All well and good, up to a point. But even today I recall well the news footage of a cordon of helmeted LAPD officers standing shoulder to shoulder around a fire engine as its crew fought a fire in a store that had been looted. But in the same camera shot were scores of looters merrily going about their business in a store directly across the street from the one that was on fire. Why, I wondered, didn’t they keep half those cops in place to protect the firefighters and have the other half cross the street to stop the looting? When the firemen left, so did the cops, leaving the looters to pick the shelves clean and then, inevitably, torch the place. It was a scene I was dismayed to learn was repeated over and over across the riot zone.
The message that was broadcast to the world was that you could run wild in the streets and help yourself to anything you could cart away because the cops wouldn’t bother you if you didn’t bother the firemen. The result was three days of rioting and destruction, most of which could have been averted had the LAPD taken a firmer line, most especially in the riot’s first crucial hours.
And so it appears in London, where the police in Tottenham seemed unprepared and/or unwilling to take decisive action at the first signs of trouble on Saturday. Now, with rioting spread across London and beyond, it will be all the harder to quell.
What is perhaps just as disturbing as the rioting is what will surely follow: the orgy of “outreach” and “understanding” and “communication” and all the other non-judgmental drivel that some will attempt to substitute for the public condemnation the rioters deserve. The lesson of the riots, whether in Los Angeles or London, is a simple one: When you tolerate bad behavior, you get more of it.
— Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber.