ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
It has been 20 years since Los Angeles erupted in riots. The violence followed the acquittal of four white police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King. There have been many changes in the city since those days of fire, looting and public discord. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, perhaps the biggest changes can be seen in L.A.'s police department.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: On a drive around the heart of South Central L.A., there are still plenty of empty weed-filled lots. Businesses that burned in the riots were never rebuilt. There's also still a lot of crime.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible) one suspect was possibly 16. The second was 18 years.
KAHN: Commander Dennis Kato is out patrolling around his 77th Street Police Station. We drive by three young men up against a liquor store's wall in handcuffs.
CAPTAIN DENNIS KATO: We had a shooting over the weekend. That's why the officers have been down here more. We had three people shot there on Sunday.
KAHN: Despite this daytime arrest, crime is nowhere near the levels it was back in 1992 when the riots hit. That year, 143 people were murdered, just within the 77th's 12-square-mile area. Kato was a patrol cop in 1992. He'd been on the beat five years.
KATO: Tension between police and the community, from my point of view being a young officer here, was really contentious. I mean, you could feel it. You could almost cut it with a knife.
KAHN: Kato says crime was so rampant they would just flood the area with cops.
KATO: The style of policing was really just suppress, suppress, suppress, suppress.
KAHN: He says everyone was stopped and talked to, every car that could be was impounded, and every possible ticket was written. Gary Verge worked the 77th as well.
GARY VERGE: There was a time when if you run from us, then we're going to deal with you when we catch you.
KAHN: Verge had only been on the beat for a year when the riots broke out.
VERGE: Back then, we just reacted to things. We went after everybody that was violating crimes, but we did it in an aggressive fashion. That was the end of the Darryl Gates era.
KAHN: Gates was the controversial chief of the LAPD at the time of the riots. His style embodied the force's tough policing - confrontational and unapologetic. Even as the city burned, Gates refused to criticize the cops who beat Rodney King or the verdict that acquitted them.
DARRYL GATES: I think we need to accept the fact that the verdict came in, and if we are a nation of laws, we will accept that and go from there.
KAHN: But no one was accepting the verdict or the LAPD. For the next five days, the fires burned on.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Break it, break it, break it.
KAHN: More than 50 people died, and rioters caused more than a billion dollars in property damage. The LAPD was slow to respond. Dennis Kato says he watched other police forces patrol his division, and then the National Guard moved in. He said it was an embarrassment.
KATO: You know, why do we need them here, you know, to help police? And what are - we failed. That's how I felt, right? We failed.
KAHN: With the community in ashes and the police demoralized, changes were promised. Chief Gates was forced out, a new chief was hired, then another. But civil rights lawyer Connie Rice says real changes to LAPD's culture didn't begin until years later. She says the department had to hit bottom first. And that happened in 1998 with a scandal at the city's central Rampart Division.
CONNIE RICE: Rodney King was an eight on the Richter Scale. Rampart was a 10.
KAHN: Dozens of LAPD officers were accused of corruption, drug dealing and other crimes. Federal authorities came in, and a consent decree was imposed. Rice says the scandal forced a substantive change in leadership.
RICE: It cleared the deck. It cleared the way to bring in a transformative chief who would use the consent decree to finally, finally force LAPD to police constitutionally.
KAHN: That chief was William Bratton, who, together with a strong civilian police commission and the mayor, truly set reforms in motion. That's not to say that there haven't been conflicts and challenges over the past decade. But most civil rights and community groups give the LAPD high marks for progress. Residents approve of the department, too, although its popularity has slipped over the past 15 years according to polling by Loyola Marymount University.
CLARENCE HEARD: I'm not particularly fond of the police.
KAHN: Clarence Heard, a local minister in South L.A., says the LAPD is definitely a different department than it was 20 years ago.
HEARD: But to be honest with you, I think L.A. is much better since the feds took over the LAPD. You know, I think they work harder at trying to defuse a situation as opposed to escalating a situation.
KAHN: Back at the 77th Police Station, Officer Gary Verge says he wouldn't want to go back to the days of the riots, but he says he doesn't regret being a cop back then.
VERGE: We got to witness the change. We got to come in at the end and see how they used to do it, and we got to be a part of the solution.
KAHN: Verge is now the 77th's senior community relations officer. That's a job that didn't exist in April of 1992. Carrie Kahn, NPR News.