Lieutenant Andrew Neiman remembers the shame he felt when Los Angeles descended into chaos 20 years ago, after a white jury absolved police of a brutal video-taped beating of a black man, Rodney King.
For more than six hours, as looting, arson and violence engulfed the city’s predominantly black South Central district, police did nothing, kept off the street by their paralyzed leadership.
“I loved being an officer, I always wanted to be a police officer,” Neiman said. “But when that happened, afterward, I didn’t want to be a police officer anymore. I was ashamed. Because of how we let the city down. We let the people down.”
From the beginning, the riots were all about the Los Angeles Police Department, and its volatile relationship with the city’s black community, which came to a head with the beating of Rodney King.
A bystander watching from his apartment window video-taped King as he lay on the ground in the street below, surrounded by baton-wielding LAPD officers.
As the tape rolled, the police clubbed King 56 times about the head, knees and arms, knocking him down repeatedly as he struggled to get on his feet.
Four officers were charged with assault and excessive use of force, but on April 29, 1992 all were acquitted of the assault charges. Three were cleared of the excessive force charge, and the jury deadlocked in the case of the fourth officer.
The verdicts set off a torrent of rage in the black community.
“It was sort of scary,” said Neiman, recalling a harrowing ride on a police bus as it made its way through a city ablaze to the department’s command post.
“Things were hitting the bus, people were throwing things at the bus, we didn’t know if they were shooting at the bus, we could see the glow of flames from buildings being on fire,” he said.
“It was like (going) through a war zone.”
At the command post, Neiman found paralysis had set in among the department’s leaders.
Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates was out of the city, and his assistants were afraid to take decisions on their own.
Hundreds of police officers were massed at the command post awaiting orders, but as the city burned no instructions were forthcoming.
“I assume they were afraid, but for some reason they would not allow the officers to go out into the street and stop the looting, the violence and the buildings on fire.
“In my opinion, I think they were afraid that we were going to make it worse,” he said.
For the first six to eight hours on the first day of the riots, there were few police on the streets, he said.
“We had over a thousand officers in this command post and they wouldn’t let them leave. Finally, officers were so upset with that, that they started to sneak out the back gate to go out and try to stop some of the violence.
“And finally chief Gates arrived and screamed to this assistant officers for not doing their job and then we started to go out and arrest people and stop them from breaking in to the banks and burning down the stores.”
It took “almost three to four days to stop all of that,” Neiman said.
The brunt of the looting and arson was borne by Korean store owners, who armed themselves and set up their own patrols to protect their property.
In all 53 people were killed, thousands were injured, and the damage is estimated to have exceeded $1 billion.
“For me as a police officer, I was very embarrassed,” said Neiman, who was 30 years old at the time and had six-and-a-half years on the force. “I was ashamed that we were not helping to stop it.”
Reflecting on the experience, Neiman said the riots were also humbling for a force with a reputation for arrogance.
“When I first came on and before I came on, I think the attitude of the police department was that ‘we own the city. It’s our city and people have to do what we say.'”
“And after the riots we learned it’s not our city. We work for the people and it’s their city,” he said.