Report: National Guard unprepared for L.A. riots

By TED APPEL  |  Dec. 2, 1992
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Poor advance planning and a series of 'Murphy's Law' mishaps are to blame for agonizing delays that grounded National Guard troops during the first key hours of the Los Angeles riots, a report concluded Wednesday.

The investigation, ordered by Gov. Pete Wilson, concluded that 'archaic' civil disturbance training given to Guardsmen left them unprepared for the gun fights and arson fires that transformed parts of Los Angeles into an urban battleground during the three-day uprising.

The report by retired Army Lt. Gen. William Harrison criticized a decision by Guard leaders to centralize ammunition supplies at Camp Roberts in the Monterey area instead of dispersing supplies at strategically located armories across the state. Consolidation of ammunition supplies, which was ordered for security reasons, was completed just days before riots broke out and was the single largest factor that kept Guard troops from hitting the streets quickly.

Most experts said that once the troops were on the streets, guarding public buildings and patrolling neighborhoods, they were a major factor in stemming the violence.

'Under extremely trying circumstances, California's citizen soldiers performed with commendable gallantry and skill,' Wilson said. 'The people of California have abundent reason to be grateful and proud of the Guard.'

But the governor said faster deployment of the Guard could have prevented some of the looting and violence that claimed more than 50 lives and cost an estimated $2 billion in property damage.

'If the Guard had been out visible earlier I think it would have contained a great deal of that activity,' Wilson told a Capitol news conference.

The report showed that Guard leaders were unprepared when Wilson ordered them to deploy troops into Los Angeles when rioting broke out April 29 after a suburban jury failed to convict four white police officers in the Rodney King beating.

The National Guard, which had not been notified in advance by local officials that troops might be needed, had loaned much of its riot gear to other law enforcement agencies expected to quell any disturbances stemming from the verdict.

'Yes, we should have had some contingency plans. Unfortunately that didn't happen,' Harrison said.

Wilson ordered the deployment at 8:45 p.m. that evening, and the first of 2,000 troops arrived about seven hours later. The soldiers were forced to remain at the Los Alamitos staging area for more than nine hours because they had no ammunition while the mayhem went on unchecked, the report said.

'Murphy kicked in,' Harrison said, referring to the old 'Murphy's Law' adage: If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.

A helicopter sent from Stockton did not arrive to pick up the ammunition at Camp Roberts until 6:30 a.m. on April 30th. The helicopter was late because the flight crew could not take off until they were fitted with gas masks. Valuable time was wasted until a Guard official unlocked the storeroom where the gas masks are kept.

Upon reaching Camp Roberts, the crew lacked the proper equipment to load the ammunition and was forced to stow their cargo by hand. Once the pallets were loaded, the flight crew was told that some of the grenades on board were obsolete. The crew was then forced to unload the helicopter, replace the obsolete grenades, and then reload the aircraft.

Further delay resulted when the helicopter was diverted to Camp San Luis Obispo to pick up flak vests, riot batons and face shields. The diversion was ordered to save taxpayers money by consolidating flights instead of using two aircraft to transport supplies to Los Angeles. The crew was again forced to unload some of the ammunition to make room for the extra equipment. The flight was delayed again while lock plates -- which turn the Guard's automatic M-16 rifles into semiautomatic weapons -- were transported to the base.

In Los Angeles, meanwhile, Guard commanders were hastily training their troops in techniques to quell civil disturbances right up until the moment the ammunition arrived, Harrison said.

The report concluded that Guard leaders believed their troops would not be needed to quell civil unrest in California, and concentrated their planning for natural disasters, drug interdiction efforts and other missions.

'It seemed a risk they could take to free up assets for more immediate and more pressing matters. The gamble did not pay off,' the report said.

Harrison strongly recommended that the National Guard obtain more riot gear and properly train troops in civil disturbance techniques. The Guard's new adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Tandy Bozeman, said the Guard has already begun to disperse its ammunition supplies throughout California.

His predecessor, Brig. Gen. Robert Barrow, said the report has sparked an internal review of procedures.

'We have learned much from the L.A. riot situation and the external assessment of the California National Guard's performance,' he said. 'We value the report and will use it as a roadmap to improve our readiness for future emergencies.'

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