California State Military Department
The California Military Museum
Preserving California's Military Heritage
The 1992 Los Angeles Riots
Military Operations in Los Angeles, 1992
by
Major General (Ret.) James D. Delk
 
Parts of Los Angeles can be extremely dangerous. The county had over 100,000 gang members and there were 771 gang-related homicides reported in 1991. It is not surprising that many police officers admit they "lost the streets" some years ago, with many neighborhoods in the city dominated by rival gangs. Drug deals are often conducted openly, without even a pretense of cover-up. Gunshots and fires routinely occur on a normal night in some of those neighborhoods, which are carefully avoided by most law-abiding citizens.

That was the environment when the Rodney King verdict was announced on April 29, 1992. Riots erupted, and shortly after 9:00 p.m., the first 2,000 California Army National Guard (CA ARNG) soldiers were requested by the governor. The call was not expected because the CA ARNG had repeatedly been assured they would not be needed for any disturbances resulting from the Rodney King verdict. As a consequence of those assurances, considerable riot control equipment had been loaned to other agencies. In spite of the no-waming start, there were 2,000 Guardsmen marshaled in Southern California armories within six hours.

Units were dispatched early in the afternoon of April 30th, based on informal requests by law enforcement leadership before formal tasking arrangements had been established. I later met with the sheriff, chief of police and commissioner of the California Highway Patrol in the sheriff's office. A situation report was provided by the chief of police, whose greatest immediate concern was for protection of firemen responding to numerous arson fires in the riot area. Several had already been wounded and many were refusing to leave their stations without escort. It was quickly agreed that the Highway Patrol would escort fire trucks, with ambulances later added to their mission. We agreed that the CA ARNG would handle all other missions. After a brief discussion, it was decided that all mission taskings would flow through the Sheriff's Emergency Operations Center where the sheriff, police and military would be co-located along with a representative of the State Office of Emergency Services.

Unlike Watts, a comparatively small neighborhood, these riots encompassed a huge area that stretched over 32 miles from the Hollywood Hills to Long Beach. Communications deteriorated when the troops were first sent in, as radios were ineffective due to built-up areas and the great distances involved, but were quickly reestablished using commercial and cellular phones.

Guardsmen were quickly committed into chaotic areas where there was considerable shooting, fires and looting. Guardsmen were then scattered throughout the affected area, often down to the fire team level. Thirty shooting incidents were reported in one night.
 
There was considerable risk taking, especially the first fewnights. Lock plates are required to be installed in M16 and M16A1 rifles to prevent automatic fire during civil disturbances. This is a comparatively complex process, requiring a trained armorer or maintenance contact team. We did not have time, so most soldiers were committed before the plates were installed.
 
Four serious incidents during the initial phase were particularly memorable. One involved two Guardsmen from an infantry battalion who rescued two girls from a convicted rapist. The other three were the only incidents involving gunfire. The first involved the 40th Military Police Company from the 40th Infantry Division (Mechanized), the first unit on the street. Members helped arrest an armed robber who twice turned his weapon on them. The robber surrendered after four rounds were fired, with no one injured.
 
The second shooting incident turned out to be by far the most important. A gang member had taunted Guardsmen from the division's support command, telling them he was coming back to kill them that night. This was a rather common threat, but this man was not kidding. He returned in his car after curfew and attempted to run them down. They jumped out of the way, but were not fast enough. One Guardsman was hit, but not seriously. The gang member drove off for a while before returning for his second attempt. When he refused to stop, the Guardsmen fired about 10 rounds at his tires in an attempt to stop him. When it was clear he was determined to run Guardsmen down, they finally used deadly force and killed him with one bullet in the. shoulder and two in the head.
 
Another felon caused the final shooting incident involving Guardsmen when he attempted vehicular homicide. He first hit a car and then ran down a police officer, breaking his leg. When the gang member refused to stop, two infantrymen each fired one round. The gang member then stopped with a serious wound in the buttocks and groin. It later turned out he was on felony probation from Florida for vehicular manslaughter.
 
Comparing fire discipline during these riots with earlier riots may be instructive. For instance, in the 1965 riots in Watts, there was considerable machine gun fire and great expenditure of ammunition from small arms through .50 caliber. Commanders during those riots, knowing the lock plates were not installed, had to rely on their noncommissioned officers to enforce fire discipline. The fact that only 20 rounds were fired in Los Angeles was an extraordinary demonstration of restraint and testament that trust was not misplaced.
 
Order was quickly restored. The response from citizens when the CA ARNG arrived in a neighborhood was immediate and gratifying. There was much applause and other visible signs of support, to include thumbs up and waving. Guardsmen had trouble spending money in local stores, even those that had been looted, as shopkeepers and eating-places refused to take money from them. Literally thousands of pizzas and other meals, soft drinks and cookies were delivered to Guardsmen by restaurants and individual citizens. Cards and letters of thanks from school children were delivered to various staging areas.
 
When law and order was reestablished, the streets were much safer than they had been prior to the riots. In Compton, for instance, the police told us the crime rate was down 70 percent. One elderly gentleman told us that his wife could walk to the market for the first time in over 20 years, While this response was gratifying, it also made it extremely difficult to remove the troops. The citizenry simply did not want to let us go, and the last troops did not leave until May 29th, precisely a month later, in a carefully phased withdrawal.

There were considerable discussions about the speed with which Guardsmen had responded to the emergency, an issue which continues to this day. No one doing the criticizing during the riots asked us what the standard is, though we know that the military has a standard for just about everything. In this case,good source is the Department of Defense Civil Disturbance (Garden Plot) Plan. The 7th Infantry Division (Light) at Fort Ord, California, received orders to move at 0415 hours on May 1, 1992. The first chalk lifted off slightly over 12 hours later. The task force closed at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, about 25 hours after the start time. That is well within the standards described in Garden Plot. It is also helpful to note that the 82d Airborne Division's alert battalion is expected to have the first aircraft wheels up in 18 hours. Guardsmen were committed and on the streets before 18 hours had elapsed. As you can see, that was an extraordinarily fast response, especially when considering that the response was initiated without warning.
 
After law and order had been restored, Guardsmen heard that they had been federalized and Active Component soldiers and Marines were on the way to restore law and order. Feeling that their efforts were not recognized or appreciated, morale plummeted.
 
The joint task force commander, Major General Marvin L. Covault of the 7th Infantry Division, arrived shortly thereafter. He was briefed by the 40th Infantry Division and moved to the tactical operations center (TOC), established by his assault command post. His first act was to name MG Daniel J. Hernandez of the 40th Infantry Division as the Army Force commander, and placed his 2d Brigade under the operational control of General Hernandez. This immediately restored the morale of National Guardsmen. The Marine Force (MARFOR) made up the other portion of the joint task force. The MARFOR consisted of approximately 1,500 Marines from Camp Pendleton, CA, commanded by Brigadier General Marvin T. Hopgood, deputy commander of the 1st Marine Division. That task force staged out of Tustin Marine Corps Air Station. Although federalization adversely impacted in several ways, the Total Force under Covault never worked better. Most important of all, no troops were killed or seriously injured and no
innocent civilians were injured by the soldiers.
 
Also, in retrospect, the current standards and training methodology used in the CA ARNG were overwhelmingly validated. There are many examples. The 40th Infantry Division's headquarters quickly went into action using lessons learned during BCTP (battle command training program) and WARFIGHTER exercises. Subordinate headquarters demonstrated their competence learned in Brigade/ Battalion Automated Simulation Exercise, Army Training Battle Simulation System and CAPSTONE-sponsored exercises.
 
If there is a secret to our success in Los Angeles, it is probably our young noncommissioned officers. We have been powering down for years in a consistent program involving at least the last four division commanders. This powering down was not designed for civil disturbances, but merely part of what the 40th Infantry Division considers battle focus. For instance, all noncommissioned officers in tactical operations centers throughout the division are expected to be able to brief. The payoff came during the riots. For example, one young sergeant with five other soldiers was responsible for an entire shopping center in Compton. Night after night, he and his soldiers exhibited unprecedented professionalism and restraint in spite of stress, fatigue and great provocation. Such soldiers were the real secret of success in Los Angeles, and we are extremely proud of them.
 

For futher reading, we recommend:
 
On this website:
A Battalion Commander's Perspective
Lessons in Command and Control from the Los Angeles Riots
 
Books
Fires and Furies: The L.A. Riots, What Really Happened
by Major General James D. Delk
Hardcover. Published by Etc Publications. 1994
Written by the senior military commander during the worst riots this nation has seen in this century.

Major General James D. Delk was the commander of California Army National Guard forces in Los Angeles during the 1992 riots until the National Guard was federalized. This article was condensed from MG Delk's article in the September 1992 issue of Military Review and was printed here with the author's permission.
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