- The 1992 Los Angeles
- Military Operations
in Los Angeles, 1992
- Major General (Ret.) James D.
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.
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
- 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.
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,
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
- 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,
- On this website:
Battalion Commander's Perspective
in Command and Control from the Los Angeles Riots
- Fires and Furies: The L.A. Riots, What
- by Major General James D. Delk
- Hardcover. Published by Etc Publications.
- 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.