LAPD officer reflects on L.A. riots during Times live discussion
The day a jury found four LAPD officers not guilty of beating Rodney King, Senior Lead Officer Gary Verge was inside a barber shop waiting for the verdict.
When it came down, he "knew something was going to happen," after seeing the disgust on the faces of the customers and hearing rumblings in the 77th Street area he patrolled.
That day, he went to work three hours early.
"I was like, ‘Let me hurry up and get dressed, because they’re going to need some help out there,' " Verge recounted during the chat live-streamed Thursday on latimes.com. "When I first pulled in, there were officers running all over the place."
As it turned out, South L.A. officers such as Verge would be pulled back and redeployed to an MTA bus station. The very men and women charged with protecting the community would be temporarily restrained from doing their job.
Times columnist Sandy Banks said she talked to several officers still at the 77th Street station, and many, including Verge, said the decision still stings.
"We watched other agencies come into our division who didn’t know their way around, and they were sent out to work the streets," Verge said. "It was like going out into the wilderness without a map. You’re lost. We felt like that was our responsibility to protect that community.
"To not have the opportunity to do our jobs when the city was at its worst, it was really, really frustrating, and it was insulting," he said.
And as windows broke and stores were looted, Banks recalled that within The Times building, reporters were feeling the tension too.
"I think everybody was internalizing and personalizing what was going on," she said. "Even among reporters, there was fear, there was anger, there was all the same emotions you’d see out on the streets."
On those streets, Verge said he was shot at and was called "basically every racial slur you can think of." Because he is a black officer, he said people viewed him as a sellout. Those who hated the city also hated the police who represented it.
Not so, 20 years later.
Now, Verge said, police have relationships with the communities they serve. They listen more, they read to kids in schools, and some of those kids say they want to grow up to be policemen and policewomen –- a sentiment seldom expressed two decades ago.
"There are people from that community who look at me like their son," Verge said. "A lot of people from that era, they feed me. They’ll invite you on holidays."
Verge called the riots a "low point" for the Police Department, adding that there was "basically no response." But he’s confident the LAPD is stronger now.
"That wasn’t indicative of the department I work for," Verge said of the riots. "And I don’t believe we’ll ever respond like that again."
-- Matt Stevens
Photo: Senior Lead Officer Gary Verge greets Angie Kwon, a cashier at Penny Pinchers Liquor in South L.A. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times