Working The Rodney King Riots – Law and Disorder

GUMSHOE-DANNY-PITOCCO[su_dropcap style=”flat”]G[/su_dropcap]REETINGS ONCE AGAIN kind readers who have encouraged “The Gumshoe” (retired over a year now) to bring back to life my distinct memories of my life experiences on the streets when I had a badge on my chest and the power to arrest!

During the late afternoon of April 29, 1992 in “South Central” Los Angeles, California the Rodney King riots were sparked when an all white jury acquitted four white LAPD officers of the infamous video taped beating of Rodney King.

These riots went on and spread like wildfire unchecked for the preceding three days and three long nights until they were somewhat contained with the response of over 100 police agencies along responded to an overwhelmed LAPD call for outside agency assistance. Later on the California National Guard was called in to establish a security perimeter around the riot zone.

It was reported that at least 55 people lost their lives (gang on gang violence through pay-backs); over 2,000 people injured; over 1,500 buildings damaged or destroyed (including 200 liquor stores) and over $700 million in property damage.

Okay kind readers, enough of the history lesson and now down to my personal story behind these cold hard statistics. I was working as a plain-clothes undercover narcotics investigator for the Santa Ana Police Department in April of 92. My hair was past my shoulders; my beard was unkempt; I did not wear my glasses so my pupils always looked constricted (appearance of being on meth); I sported a series of professional (fake) tattoos as a courtesy of our contacts with the Hollywood film industry; I wore the same “aromatic” clothes every day and I drove a motorcycle. I had several experiences (while I was off-duty) when I would walk into a convenience store (a “stop and rob” in police jargon) ad the clerk would actually back away from the cash register with the rightly held assumption (judging a book by its cover) I was going to make an unauthorized cash withdrawal. I was always dying to let them know that I was a “good guy” but you learn in “Narc School 101” that you never ever break your cover.

Okay now back to my tale folks. Several of us “Narcs” heard about the blossoming riots from radio chatter and so we turned on our unit’s (drug asset forfeiture television set) and saw on Eye Witness News (there eye in the sky helicopter until the rioters later starting shooting at it) the intersection of Florence and Normandie where driver Regional Denny was dragged out of his truck and savagely beaten but saved by a black pastor. We kept wondering to ourselves, “Where in the *&%# was LAPD?”.   Little did I know at the time that I would shortly be in that urban warzone a few blocks away in the vicinity of Slauson and Crenshaw that was the epicenter of the riot.

Our section Captain into our office (bull pen) that included us street narcs, vice guys and intel spooks. He said that LAPD had just put out a mutual aid broadcast for immediate assistance call to all southern California police agencies to respond. He said that our patrol officers could not go since it was anticipated that the riots would spring up in our city as well and we just could not afford to be caught under-staffed.

It was up to our investigation unit as well as other investigative units to respond but only if we volunteered. The other caveat was that we would have to quickly shun our beards and long hair since we would be in SAPD uniforms (blue suits) and in the event we had to don gas masks (beards and long hair do not insure a proper sealed fit by the way).

When you have a room full of Type-A personalities who had just witnessed Reginald Denny get his head bashed-in with a large piece of concrete and the scum-buckets dance around his fallen body – we all immediately volunteered and we went in group to a cut-rate barber to appear somewhat civilized again.

About 90 minutes later, we formed a convoy of 12 black and white SAPD units that each contained four officers. We were all armed with shotguns, flak jackets and riot helmets and gas masks. Our small convoy proceeded southbound down the I5 Santa Ana Freeway towards the city of Angeles (not!).   It was very surreal to be on the quintessential southern California freeway surrounded by regular civilians and a lot of tourists and then exit the freeway into a post-apocalyptic world.

The buildings were on fire or already reduced to rabble; outside walls were recently scared with crude graffiti that instructed the police to do something physically impossible to themselves (you can already imagine); burned-out hulks of cars and all sorts of debris that had been abandoned or looted from the ruined businesses.

There was a strange calm with the streets deserted but with the ever-present sounds of near-by gunfire. I kept thinking that I was taking a tour of Universal Studies Hollywood or else Mr. Dante invited me to view a slide show of the different levels of Hell.

We were further instructed to arrive at the Los Angeles Metropolitan Bus Terminal Center where the LAPD Command Center was situated. Once there, I saw more police units and cops than you would ever see. It was as if the Winchell’s and Krispy Kreme Donut franchises combined to make the largest store in the universe. (This was still the era of fat cops who probably had to butter the doorframes of their patrol units to squeeze inside.)

Our LAPD counterpart (maybe a Commander) gave us a quick briefing and told us that we would be broken down into three four man (sorry, we did not have any female narcs or vice cops at the time) patrol teams that would stick together and patrol adjoining sectors in the assigned sectors of Florence and Crenshaw as well as the vicinity of Normandie and Slauson.

We were told to stock-up on bottled water and snacks and a LAPD hand-held (pacset) was issued to each of our patrol units. Our rules of engagement were simple. If we came upon any dead bodies – just fill out a small evidence tag marking the time, date and location and later drop it off at the command center at the end of our 12-hour tour of duty shifts from 1800 hours to 0600 hours. If we came upon looters – just arrest them if possible and call for the paddy wagon. If we sustained sniper fire – back off and call in the armored response vehicles. Other than that, have fun boys and keep your heads down and don’t separate.

Our own SAPD sergeants were the designated drivers and keepers of the LAPD pacsets. They would remain inside the units as us “slick sleeves” would exit the units to tag bodies (we encountered about a half-dozen during our assigned three days of 12 on and 12 off shifts.

We also experienced the thrilling sound of incoming rounds ricocheting off the streets in front of us and on one occasion skipping across our unit’s hood. At nighttime, the bullets that strike the asphalt or concrete roadway actually create sparks and cause your sphincter muscle involuntarily tighten.

It was very hot with the smell of acrid smoke with a tinge of the smell of decay (animals as well as humans as well as spoiled foodstuffs). All was not quiet on the Western Front!

The novelty of actually being in a real life riot zone very quickly wears off along with the false bravado of your other blue-suited and shotgun equipped officers. There is no glory and no combat pay – just the light sheen of cold sweat on the back of your neck and the inability to relax with a small creature gnawing inside the pit of your stomach trying to get out – this creature is called fear.

When the morning arrived and our shifts were relieved (we were personally relieved also as I can speak for my partners); we were back in convoy on the northbound Santa Ana freeway among the out-of-state tourists and hoi poi and back to our station house to shower, eat and sleep unless we elected to go to our homes to do the same and to comfort our family members that it was just “boring routine patrol”. The lies we tell our loved ones to keep them from needless worry about these same lies and us we also come to believe?

On our second night of patrol, our unit noticed the reflection of shadows emitting in the ambient light from a burned out and still smoldering liquor store. I found that it was quite interesting that almost the majority of these ill-faded businesses were marked by their very unfortunate owners “Black Owned” but this did not seem to make much difference to the looters turned arsonists.

Myself along with my partner (armed with our trusty police issued Remington 870 pump-action shotguns loaded with 5-rounds of double .00 buck) entered the business via the rear.

Sure enough we both simultaneously saw two subjects clad in black outfits each holding multiple bottles of hard liquor that they had liberated from the over turned shelves. We just calmly waited patiently for each of these looters to fill their arms as full as possible with the fifths of liquor (you always want to see the suspect’s hands – hands not seen can hold a weapon that can kill you – police patrol procedures 101 folks).

These well-stocked felons then stumbled out towards the rear of the business and into the sights of our shotguns (you really don’t have to aim with a shotgun – just point it in the direction of what or who you want to really destroy). To their shock and amazement they both subsequently dropped their ill-gotten booty (their sphincter muscles probably also tightened I assumed).

My partner and I then were shocked and amazed (without the sphincter muscle thing) that each of these looters had official ID of being Los Angeles County Probation Officers.

Law and disorder – a thin “blue line” indeed!

Until next time folks, this is retired Gumshoe signing off and sticking to my story. Love the ones who love you!

Danny Pitocco
Danny Pitocco
RETIRED (as a Detective with the Snohomish County Sherriff’s Department, Washington State), Danny has over forty years of law enforcement experience across city, county, state and federal levels of government, including service as a Special Agent for the DEA, US Department of Justice. He’s a decorated law enforcement veteran, and recipient of the "Detective of the Year" award for Snohomish County, Danny is a certified composite artist and has testified as an expert witness in the field of narcotics and modus operandi of particular crimes in state and federal courts in California, and has given testimony before federal grand juries. Danny served four years of active duty in the US Marine Corps and loves Jesus as his personal savior.
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Ken Vincent
Ken Vincent

Thanks for another interesting story, Danny.

I find your experiences interesting, entertaining, and well written. The only problem I have with them is mentally converting military time to civilian time. Those of us that didn’t serve in military or police rolls are not very adept at that.

Jane Anderson

Thank you for sharing this story. I have often wondered about those riots and other policy brutality accusations because I naturally want to side with the police officers. I want to respect them and to know they are respected by others. I was interested in your description of how you looked as an under-cover agent. Both my brothers (impeccably groomed otherwise) had to ‘dress for the occasion’. My mom was shocked to say the least. I loved how you said part of your instructions was – “Other than that, have fun boys and keep your heads down and don’t separate.” I can’t imagine being in your shoes at that time but you described it perfectly. “this creature is called fear.” Even the bravest of all, know fear. My brother was once on that show Cops because he was excellent at apprehending cocaine dealers. He didn’t tell me until months after the show aired. You told me why here. “The lies we tell our loved ones to keep them from needless worry about these same lies and us we also come to believe?” I look forward to reading your stories.

Ken Vincent
Ken Vincent

Jane, I thought it was just me being a Grinch. I also get slight stomach pains when I see something in Liters, grams, centimeters, etc. Then I get out my conversion table, or just ignore it if it isn’t critical to my life at that time. I am proud that I’ve memorized the fact that 750 ml of wine = 3/4 of 1 L…..hmm, is that right?

Ken Vincent
Ken Vincent

Danny, I’m serious about you sharing your stories with the public/media. As the late Paul Harvey would have said, “Now for the rest of the story”. Someone needs to tell the reality of police work, not the doctored version usually aired. Why not send a couple of your stories to the local and regional papers. Readers Digest pays for stories like yours, as do several special interest magazines. Just something to think about.

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