Be Prepared, Use Sufficient Force


"As to delay, sufficient manpower is a prerequisite for controlling potentially dangerous crowds; the speed with which it arrives may well determine whether the situation can be controlled. In the summer of 1967, we believe that delay in mobilizing help permitted several incidents to develop into dangerous disorders, in the end requiring far more personnel and creating increased hazards to life and property." -- Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, 1968.

The public safety establishments in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Washington had every reason to be prepared for trouble in Los Angeles if the police officers charged with beating Rodney King were acquitted. They were not prepared. As a result -- well, everyone can see the result: more than three dozen dead, more than 1,200 injured, some 3,000 arrested and property damage rising toward a half of a billion dollars.

That is a short-term damage report. Long term, the costs to a city of a bloody, destructive race riot can be even greater. The riots here and elsewhere in 1967 and 1968 precipitated a loss of business investment, of middle-class residents and of confidence that condemned Baltimore and other cities to a generation of decline. It could happen again. Every city and state with the potential for a destructive riot should be planning for quashing it at its very beginning.

President Bush was correct to send federal law enforcement officials to Los Angeles, to assist local police and national guardsmen. He was correct to put regular Army units on alert and in position to join them. Absolute peace and order must be restored immediately. That requires sufficient force.

Mayor Tom Bradley is correct to insist on strong police measures stop the violence and destructiveness that have now passed from uncontrolled emotional outrage to calculated thuggery. Those are not redressers of wrongs you see on your television screen. They are criminals for whom sympathy is unwarranted. It is not insensitive to say they must be treated just as would any murderers, thieves and robbers in a non-riot situation. Such black mayors as Mr. Bradley, among others, have said just this. In Atlanta and Seattle, which have black mayors, prompt and massive reaction to what could have been the beginning of much worse disorder squelched it.

The real victims of the rioting in Los Angeles are, as usual, the law-abiding, peace-loving residents of the riot-torn neighborhoods. The black entrepreneur whose store was gutted and ransacked. The Hispanic security guard in a Korean market who was shot and killed. The innocent bystanders -- black, brown and white but principally black -- whose residences and all their belongings are literally up in smoke. It is their well-being that is sacrificed when a riot is allowed to feed on itself and grow. It is in their behalf that law enforcement must be swift, overpowering and decisive when violent disorder appears imminent.

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