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One of the main aspects of American security involves the protection of citizens from threats that originate from within our society. Out of this broad area of security issues, one concern that has persisted throughout history is the occurrence of civil unrest. Rioting and destruction of property constitute a very real and important part of American security and have often required the involvement of local as well as federal law enforcement. One of the largest riots in America took place in Los Angeles, following an unpopular verdict during the trial of four Los Angeles police officers. The rioting that ensued resulted in the deaths of 55 people along with property damages of nearly one billion dollars. Events such as this bring up one of the most important aspects of American security: how do our local and national governments protect communities following disasters and events that result in large-scale rioting and destruction of property.
1992 Los Angeles Riots: American Reaction and Response
When considering American security as a whole, one important area that is often times overlooked is the protection of citizens from domestic threats and incidences of civil unrest. Throughout American history, cases of civil unrest and rioting have posed serious threats to the security of our nation, often times resulting in the massive destruction of property and loss of life. One of the largest riots in American history took place after the acquittal of four LAPD officers accused of beating an African-American man following a high speed chase in Los Angeles. The decision sparked a riot that resulted in property damages of nearly one billion dollars and a death toll of 55 people (Delk 1995). This destruction occurred for six days following the verdict which was reported on April 29, 1992. This event, and others like it, bring up a major aspect of American security: how do our local and national governments protect communities following disasters and events that may result in rioting and destruction of property.
Understanding how government organizations quell unrest and respond to such issues is an important part of local and national security. Individuals are guaranteed the right to assemble peacefully as dictated by the 1st Amendment, however there are cases each year where the safety of the public becomes an issue. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), a civil disturbance is defined by: "An unlawful assembly that constitutes a breach of the peace or any assembly of persons where there is danger of collective violence, destruction of property or other unlawful acts." Events of civil unrest may be instigated for many reasons and can occur in relatively any area. It is important to understand how law enforcement and government agencies work to make sure that community security is a top priority. In recent years, the Department of Homeland Security has recruited a national research, training, and technical assistance firm called the Community Research Associates (CRA), in order to help develop civil unrest courses and procedures for law enforcement and first responders. Organizations like the CRA allow for law enforcement and emergency response workers to collaborate and plan for various cases of civil disturbances and unrest.
In order to understand riot response and security, it is important to analyze different cases of civil unrest, focusing on how local and national law enforcement responds to these events. One of the largest riots in American history took place in Los Angeles in 1992 following the trial of four LAPD officers accused of using excessive force during the apprehension of Rodney King. On March 3, 1991, California Highway Patrol attempted to stop a vehicle driven by Rodney King and occupied by two other passengers. The attempted traffic stop resulted in a high-speed pursuit along California freeways as well as residential neighborhoods. When King was finally stopped, four members of the LAPD attempted to arrest him. The officers tackled, tasered, and heavily beat King who they claimed resisted arrest and repeatedly ignored the arresting officers instructions. King claimed to have fled due to the fear of returning to prison for parole violations he had made following convictions for robbery and assault. The arrest was caught on tape by George Holliday, and subsequently became part of a media frenzy. Hundreds of news articles and other media coverage resulted in a high level of awareness and protest across the country, ultimately leading to violence following the trial of the arresting officers (Delk 1995).
On April 29, 1992 a California jury acquitted all four of the arresting officers of assault and acquitted three of the four of using excessive force. Following the report of the verdict, a crowd in excess of 300 people had gathered outside the Los Angeles County Courthouse. The crowd was met by a group of police officers that were largely outnumbered and were forced to retreat. Following this, a large crowd of protesters also congregated near the LAPD headquarters and began looting and committing other act of violence. The first day of the Los Angeles riots also resulted in two high profile acts of violence highlighted by extensive media coverage. The first of the two involved the severe beating of Reginald Oliver Denny, a white truck driver who was dragged from his vehicle and assaulted by a mob of local black residents. Media helicopters flying above the scene were able to capture extensive footage of the event. Police were unable to respond to the assault due to the fact that they had been ordered to withdraw for their own protection. The victim was eventually rescued by an African American civilian who drove Denny from the scene and to a local hospital. Only minutes after Denny was taken from the scene, another assaulted took place at the very same intersection involving Fidel Lopez, a Guatemalan immigrant. Lopez was pulled from his vehicle, robbed and severely beaten, eventually being rescued by an African American minister who was able to stop the mob and remove Lopez from the scene (Delk 1995).
The second day of rioting resulted in unchecked violence across Los Angeles County particularly focused in the Korean American community. After police were forced to abandon communities, citizens attempted to protect their property by organizing armed security teams. Local media stations were able to capture footage of gun battles between Korean citizens and members of the mob, while citizens attempted to protect themselves and their property from the violent crowds. Well into the second day of rioting, an organized response from law enforcement began to take effect. Members of the California Highway Patrol were flown into the city, and firefighters were able to respond with police escort. Along with this, the Los Angeles Mayor put a curfew into affect attempting to empty the streets. At this point, the California National Guard responded by calling up roughly 2,000 soldiers, however they were unable to enter the city until the next day due to lack of equipment and ammunition available in the area (Delk 1995).
On the third day of rioting, the Governor of California had requested assistance from the federal government. National Guard troops in numbers of nearly 4000 began to move into the city, along with around 1,700 federal law enforcement officers from across the state (Miller 2001). At this point, power was also cut to the areas primarily affected by the riot. President Bush gave an address to the nation that evening highlighting the necessity of restoring order to the city. He also warned that the brutality of the mob would not be tolerated and would be met with whatever force necessary. Many events and institutions throughout the city were cancelled or shut down including: sporting events, schools, entertainment, and transportation. The closing of Los Angeles International Airport resulted in major disruptions of travel across the nation. Along with this, bus services, several freeways, and train services in Los Angeles were suspended (Delk 1995).
On the fourth day following the trial, roughly 4,000 Soldiers and Marines entered the city in order to gain control over the situation. Following the arrival of the military order was restored to the city rather quickly and most of the violence in Los Angeles resulting from the riots had come to an end. The fifth and sixth days passed relatively uneventfully, resulting in an address from local government officials stating that the violence had come to an end. This address was followed by the lifting of the curfew previously imposed and the resuming of normal transportation in and out of the city. Following the restoration of order throughout the city, troops remained in Los Angeles until May 29th. During this period of time, officials reported that the overall crime rate was down 70 percent. This fact made it slightly more difficult for the military to withdraw (Delk 1992).
When analyzing this event as a whole, some startling statistics can be observed. Throughout the 6 days that the rioting took place officials reported the deaths of 55 individuals along with reports of over 2,000 injuries directly related to the rioting. Ultimately a force of 4,000 Soldiers and Marines occupied the city along with 1,700 other federal law enforcement officers and roughly 4,000 National Guard troops in order to restore order. During this period over 3000 fires were set and extensive looting took place resulting in damages of around one billion dollars (Delk 1995).
Based on this event, it is clear that the protection of American people from cases of civil unrest can be an extremely important aspect of security, power, and justice in the United States. In order to effectively deal with a situation involving mob brutality or other scenarios that accompany instances of civil unrest, it is important that a proper balance between security, power, and justice is maintained. Clearly the most important priority during this type of occurrence is the preservation of human life, which depends heavily on the ability of law enforcement to protect the people. This ability is often times directly related to the level at which law enforcement is able to respond. Responding to and planning for instances of civil unrest is primarily a local law enforcement responsibility, however in certain situations, as mentioned previously, local law enforcement members are unable to maintain order in communities without assistance. In cases like this preparation and planning of security officials is paramount in order to effectively provide communities with the resources and man-power necessary to keep people safe (Vernon 2008).
As seen through the example of the 1992 LA incident, it is also necessary that local governments receive federal help when situations become out of control or begin to overwhelm local law enforcement. Plans to make military resources and National Guard troops available to communities under siege are one of the most important aspects of this strategy. When situations such as this occur, responsibility rests with the Governor and local chief elected officials. They have the ability to request federal or multi-jurisdictional aid, along with the ability to impose actions such as curfews or to order evacuations. Along with this, it is important that government send a clear message to lawbreakers that violence and lawlessness will not be tolerated and will be retaliated against with necessary force, as in the address given by President Bush during the 1992 incident. Security is one of the most important aspects of the topic of civil unrest due to the fact that like terrorism, it is an event in which the frequency of occurrence cannot be predicted. In order to counteract an almost unpredictable event, planning is extremely crucial.
Another extremely important aspect of civil unrest scenarios is the just treatment of civilians whether involved or not involved in illegal activities. This topic is a key issue when analyzing events of civil unrest. In the case of the 1992 LA riots, one could argue that debate over whether or not a citizen received just treatment from law enforcement officials led to the instigation of this massive conflict (Mallery 2000). Social justice is clearly an issue that has brought about violent events throughout history. Racial or economic injustices and inequities can often times act as catalysts in the instigation or continuation of violent scenarios (Lange and Balian 2007).
According to Miller (2001), "Once the riots started the decision making focused less on police procedure than on constituency perception." Police avoided making mass arrests in order to prevent inflaming the already tense situation. Overall, the police action taken during the riots could be described as a hands off approach. In order to respond effectively to a developing crisis, police and city officials, who are responsible for emergency response, need to be mobilized quickly and be present in numbers to provide a necessary show of force. The response of LAPD and city officials are characterized by Miller (2001) as "hesitant, reluctant, confused, indecisive, and lacking in any conviction to take action." As a whole, the 1992 LA riot response could be referred to as police paralysis which resulted in a message to the community that the police were not in control.
This approach disproportionately affected the Korean community in Los Angeles, whose stores were targets of looting and fires. Many of the small Korean owned businesses were completely destroyed over the course of the riots. The overall lack of police response offended the Korean community to such a level that nationals in Korea responded by rioting against American military bases in Korea (Miller 2001). Along with this, Miller states that "The more politicized the issues, the less likely tactical, objective decisions are going to be made." This directly relates to the action taken in the Los Angeles riots due to the racial character of the incident. Miller concludes by stating that "Irrespective of what the underlying political ingredient is, whether race or business interest, the execution of crisis responses in democracy is a political and not an objective decision" (Miller 2001). This also speaks to the overall justice of response to this type of incident. When officials are too worried about political perception and not about making the best decisions in order to resolve a particular crisis, justice is not achieved to its fullest (Drier 2003).
Justice is also a major issue when analyzing the methods that local and federal law enforcement rely on to reconcile such situations. When considering this subject, one area that has received attention in recent years is whether or not employing the use of less-lethal (LL) technology falls under the category of just riot control. This class of weapons is designed to incapacitate individuals without lethal injury by using specialty impact ammunition. LL weapons are placed directly below the use of deadly force on the police use-of-force continuum, however the use of LL technology is preferred by law enforcement over other alternative techniques for violent crowd dispersal. These less-lethal crowd control techniques have been employed since the 1970's, however recent developments in technology have resulted in the mortality rates associated with their use decreasing dramatically (Suyama 2003).
Along with this, it is important to analyze whether or not the civilian response to such incidents is just. In situations like 1992 LA, citizens banded together forming what could be classified as organized security teams in order to attempt to protect their community's assets as well as their families (Webster 1992). When law enforcement officials were unable to maintain order, groups of citizens were forced to take the law into their own hands in order to ensure their individual security and rights were not violated. This can become a complicated issue when the line between self defense and vigilante justice becomes blurred. This also becomes an extremely difficult issue when civilians decide to use deadly force as in the 1992 riots. Over the 6 day course of the 1992 LA riots, over 12,000 individuals were arrested some of whom were clearly only members of the community attempting to protect themselves. One particular instance highlighting justice in this type of scenario involves Korean shop owner Soon Ja Du. Du shot and killed an African American teenager whom she suspected of shoplifting. The victim of this incident reportedly pushed Du three times knocking her to the ground. Following this, Du shot the girl in the back of the head, killing her. Following this incident, Du was sentenced to only five years of probation (Stevenson 2004). This story highlights how justice in incidents such as this can often become clouded.
It is clear that one of the most important and major aspects of American security is protecting citizens from domestic threats and incidences of civil unrest. Throughout history, incidences of civil unrest and rioting have posed serious threats to American security, often resulting in the massive destruction of property and loss of life. Understanding how American government organizations respond to such incidents is a crucial part of understanding local and national security. In order to effectively deal with violent situations, it is important that a proper balance between security, power, and justice is maintained. The most important priority in these types of events is safety, which often times is directly related to the ability of law enforcement to protect the people and put a stop to violent scenarios. In order for law enforcement to accomplish this, preparation and planning for instances of civil unrest is extremely important. When circumstances require the involvement of national resources, it is important that military resources and National Guard troops be available to affected communities. Along with this, it is important that government officials make proper decisions regarding evacuations or curfews in order to protect the people. Another important responsibility that the government has in this type of situation is to send a clear message to lawbreakers that violence will not be tolerated and that necessary force will be employed in order to put a stop to illegal activities. Due to the fact that the occurrence of such events cannot be predicted, in order to counteract undesirable situations, planning is crucial.
Another important aspect of civil unrest scenarios is the just treatment of civilians. This is a key factor in the prevention of violent incidents. When analyzing the 1992 LA riots, an overall hands off approach by law enforcement in the initial stages resulted in the spread and continuation of violence throughout the city. This approach had disproportionate effects of the Korean community in Los Angeles, highlighting the social justice aspects of this type of incident. Social justice is an issue that can often times ignite or propagate violent situations. Along with this, response by officials needs to be free of fear of political perception. When this occurs, as seen in LA, tactical objective decision making suffers.
Along with this, justice also becomes a major issue when analyzing the methods that law enforcement relies upon to reconcile such situations. The use of LL technology has become an area of attention in recent years regarding this subject, however most agree that the use of LL weapons is a safe and just method of resolving civil unrest incidents.
Another important aspect of this subject is whether or not the civilian response to such incidents is just. When under siege, communities in Los Angeles took the law into their own hands in attempts to protect themselves and their property. This type of action can complicate civil unrest scenarios and often lead to more violence. This can be observed in the cas of Soon Ja Du, whom many hold responsible for the increased level of tension between the Korean and African American communities during the LA riots.
One of the most important aspects of American security is protecting citizens from domestic threats and incidences of civil unrest. In order for law enforcement to have effective response to such incidences, it is necessary for organizations to have resources that allow them to deliver collaborated and successful response to such incidents. Set procedural guidelines for emergency response help to provide these organizations with the tools and information they need in order to protect American citizens.