This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of the L.A. Riots, an upheaval that erupted in South Los Angeles following the acquittal of four police officers charged with the beating of Rodney King.
On April 29, 1992””and several days after that”” the city exploded with violence, looting and arson, leaving 53 people dead and thousands injured. Although South Los Angeles and Koreatown were amongst the hardest hit areas, thousands of properties were damaged or destroyed across the city.
Los Angeles Police Department Hollenbeck Division Capt. Anita Ortega had been serving as an officer for about 8 years when the outbreak occurred. Although she was not directly involved in the riot response, the violent scenes were all too familiar, having spent many years living in South L.A. and witnessing the 1965 Watts Riots as a kid. In our Q&A below, Capt. Ortega shares her reactions and explains how police-community relations in Los Angeles have improved in the last 20 years.
BH Beat: You were part of the LAPD when the L.A. Riots broke. Where were you and what was your reaction?
Capt. Ortega: When the 1992 riots came along, I was a relatively young sergeant working out of North Hollywood. North Hollywood wasn’t as impacted as South L.A. obviously, but I grew up in the South LA area”¦ I didn’t live there at the time, I had moved out of the area but I still had family that lived there so that was the hard part. I was really worried about those people who were not destroying the community.
I was very taken back by how there were so many people destroying their very own community.
BH Beat: What do you most remember witnessing live or via broadcast?
Capt. Ortega: I wasn’t part of the direct response but the television coverage was amazing. I think what touched me most was the destruction of homes, the destruction of property, the disruption of livelihood for some, the looting that was occurring.
I recognized so many of the buildings and structures and intersections that I had grown up seeing for years and years. It kind of felt like I was in a third world country or something”¦ It was unbelievable. It was shocking”¦ devastating.
BH Beat: How did you react to the Rodney King verdict?
Capt. Ortega: My take on that is as police officers we have policies and procedures we have to follow. Once we’ve done our part arresting and testifying, then it’s left in the hands of the jury and the judge and whatever their decision is something that we accept and that’s just how the process works.
BH Beat: What sort of impact did this have on you as a police officer and as an Angeleno?
Capt. Ortega: It was very hard; it was very touching. Not only from a professional standpoint, as a police officer, but from a personal standpoint as well.
I became a police officer in 1984 because I wanted to give back to my community. Because of the things that I experienced, where I grew up, and what I saw, I felt it was my obligation to give back as much as I could and the best way I thought I’d be able to do that and make an impact is by becoming a police officer.
BH Beat: Describe the relationship between the community and police officers during the trial and after the verdict?
Capt. Ortega: There was a lot of tension. There were so many walls that were set up. That’s when we really had to start grinding down and developing relationships and renewing our relationship with the community. What I saw back then as far as relationships and what we have now as far as partnerships and the progress that we’re making as an agency working hand in hand with the community, is just incredible.
BH Beat: Has the city changed since the L.A. Riots? What have cops and people learned since then?
Capt. Ortega: The city has changed significantly. You look at the senior lead officers and they’re so intimately involved in the community. We attend meetings; we work in partnerships that didn’t exist 20 years ago where we have community members getting involved and trying to improve the quality of life for the community.
You know people by first name, you feel like you have a relationship with them and friendship with the community, which is something that didn’t happen 20 years ago. It was always an “us versus them” mentality and that’s not the case anymore”¦. I know that we’ll never, ever go back to that time again.