AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Twenty five years ago this week, Los Angeles erupted.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Rodney King. Rodney King.
CORNISH: On April 29, 1992, a mostly white jury acquitted four police officers in the beating of Rodney King. For many African-Americans who lived in South LA, the verdict was an outrage. And that outrage turned into violence. The LA riots lasted five days, changed a city and is still a part of conversations today about race and policing.
Our co-host Kelly McEvers, along with Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team, went to the place where the riots began.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: OK. So we are at the corner of Florence and Normandie. We're standing next to a place called Tom's Liquor. And we've been out here a few times. And earlier when we were here at this intersection talking about the importance of the riots, we met this guy who gave us this really interesting perspective of, like, how the police here in LA have changed. His name was, Jimmy, right, Karen?
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: It was. And he was concerned about his safety, so he didn't want to give us his last name. He's close to 50. He's been out in the streets for a while. He was from Compton but he has a lot of friends in this neighborhood, so he knows it well. And he was here during the riots. Over the years, he's had a lot of run-ins with the police, including about seven months ago. He said they're different now than they were 25 years ago.
JIMMY: The police, they respect you now because they're fearing their job.
BATES: Are you afraid of the police because...
BATES: Were you afraid in '92?
JIMMY: I used to be. I'm not anymore.
MCEVERS: And one reason Jimmy said he's not as afraid anymore is his age. I mean, he's not out in the streets as much as he was when he was younger. And the other reason is this.
JIMMY: You remember the feds went in, they had...
MCEVERS: You think the feds having oversight over the police is a good thing?
JIMMY: Yes. Yes.
BATES: Yeah. Jimmy's talking about the federal consent decree that the LAPD was forced to work under for several years. It had a lot to do with changing the way the LAPD interacted with all of its citizens. It was integral to the reform of the police department.
The riots and federal oversight were two watershed moments for the LAPD. But to understand how the LAPD changed, we have to start with what happened at this intersection 25 years ago.
MCEVERS: Right. So what happened?
BATES: So the jury acquits the four policemen charged with beating Rodney King.
BATES: Black LA was furious. People got angrier and angrier. More and more people came out into the street. And eventually, some young guys broke into a bunch of the liquor stores that are in this neighborhood, including this one that we're leaning up against.
BATES: And things escalated quickly from there. They started throwing cans and bottles. Some pulled panicked passing drivers out of their cars and assaulted them.
MCEVERS: One of the issues was that the police didn't respond in force, especially at the beginning. You actually talked to somebody who was there at the time. He's a reporter named Joe Domanick. Let's take a listen to that.
JOE DOMANICK: One of the most astounding things about the 1992 Los Angeles riots was the response of the LAPD, which is to say no response at all.
BATES: Part of the reason there wasn't a response was because there wasn't a plan. Police brass, divorced from what was happening at street level, didn't anticipate social unrest on a major scale. No orders were coming from police headquarters at Parker Center to tell cops what to do. It was a mistake that led to the riots spreading well beyond Florence and Normandie.
DOMANICK: They were watching it all but they were not stopping it.
BATES: Joe Domanick says that's how the LAPD worked back then. It was a legacy of Chief William Parker, who ran the department from 1950 to 1966. Parker created the modern paramilitary LAPD you often see on TV shows. In 1992, his protege, Darryl Gates, was in charge.
Like Parker, Gates was an absolute authoritarian. He ran the department like an Eastern European dictator. Joe Domanick says Daryl Gates's LAPD, like Parker's, was especially hard on communities of color.
DOMANICK: The Los Angeles Police Department was doing stop-and-frisk long before it was ever labeled stop-and-frisk.
BATES: The stops were abrupt, humiliating and often done in full view of a spouse or child or neighbors. Each stop added to a deep well of community resentment. When the Rodney King verdict came down, it was on.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE RADIO)
BATES: Two months later, Darryl Gates was forced to resign. Joe Domanick says LA had burned before - Watts in 1965. And now this - unacceptable.
DOMANICK: It was bad for the city. It was bad for business. You can't have a city going up in flames twice in 30 years because of their police department.
BATES: Gates's LAPD, Domanick says, didn't fit with the powerbrokers' vision of a 21st century metropolis that could draw visitors and businesses from around the world. Jody David Armour teaches and writes about the intersection of race and criminal justice at the University of Southern California's law school.
Armour says the '92 riots were a wake-up call but the bigger changes happened in 1998, when a huge LAPD scandal made national news.
JODY DAVID ARMOUR: Try to imagine taking "L.A. Confidential," "Serpico" and "Training Day," rolling them all into one and you still don't have the magnitude of the Rampart scandal.
BATES: The Rampart Division of the LAPD oversaw one of the most densely populated parts of the city. The residents had been victimized by gangs and violent crime for years, so an elite anti-gang unit was tasked with covertly gathering intelligence on the bad guys.
But when it was revealed that several cops at Rampart had actually become bad guys - assaulting suspects and selling confiscated drugs - a civilian commission recommended a consent decree for federal oversight. Jody Armour.
ARMOUR: Crime actually fell while the LAPD was under the consent decree, showing that you didn't need a more paramilitary approach to policing, a more zero-tolerance approach to have effective law enforcement that reduced crime.
BATES: Ironically, this scandal happened on the watch of Bernard Parks, the city's second black police chief. Lawyer and activist Connie Rice worked with Parks's replacement, New Yorker Bill Bratton, to change police culture. She knew there was too much to lose if things didn't change.
CONNIE RICE: Every single riot in this city was triggered by law enforcement.
BATES: Rice's sunny patio is a far cry from the bleak public housing projects where she spent a lot of her time. In her work with both Bratton and the current LAPD chief, Rice says she's found a willingness to engage poor neighborhoods and police-community partnerships. These have kept the peace and built trust with many residents.
RICE: They serve the poor community instead of terrorizing and tormenting and arresting a third of the men in a community, which is what LAPD and the sheriffs did.
BATES: That was the old LAPD. Charlie Beck leads the LAPD now. The chief says crime rates today are lower than they were in the '90s and this gives his people more latitude.
CHARLIE BECK: Rather than just chase the symptoms that are crime all day long, we can work on the root causes. And so I think that that's why you see us emphasize trust at a greater rate than our predecessors did.
MCEVERS: That was Karen Grigsby Bates of our Code Switch team. I'm Kelly McEvers. We're still standing at the intersection of Florence and Normandie. Karen, it sounds like the police have thought about how to be better and there has been some progress in the LAPD since the riots, yeah?
BATES: Yes, there has been but there are - also been questionable police shootings in the past few years, as in other places. So last week, Kelly, LA's civilian police commission voted to require LAPD officers to try deescalating situations before firing their guns whenever possible.
MCEVERS: Thanks so much, Karen, for your reporting. And tomorrow, we're going to hear about another part of the LA riots that we don't always hear a lot about and that is what happened to some of the Latinos who were arrested.
(SOUNDBITE OF FROYO MA'S "SQUID LIMBO")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.