The Webster Commission
The basic narrative of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising is familiar to many. On the afternoon of April 29th, 1992 after the county-level acquittals of the four Latino and White police officers involved in the March 3, 1991 recorded beating of Rodney King, many L.A. residents took to the streets in protest. Over the next five days, mostly Black and Latino citizens of Los Angeles engaged in looting, arson, vandalism, and varieties of physical violence to an extent that the six-day period came to be understood as a riot. Participants and bystanders were met with the riot control strategies of approximately 2,500 Los Angeles Police Department officers; 400 Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department officers; 900 California Highway Patrol officers; 1,200 federal agents; 9,800 National Guardspersons; 3,500 members of the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marines; and an unknown number of non-LAPD mutual aid officers. Scenes such as the beatings of White truck driver Reginald Denny and Latino construction worker Fidel Lopez by Black rioters at the intersection of Florence and Normandie in South Central L.A. became familiar to media consumers across the country, as did photos of armed law enforcement and U.S. military members lining L.A. streets. By May 5th, approximately 9,300 emergency incidents were reported to 911; between 700 and 1,000 fires had been set; an estimated $1 billion of property damage was assessed; approximately 5,000 individuals had been arrested; and between 42 and 63 citizens were dead.
On May 11th, 1992, about one week after the riot’s end, the LAPD Board of Police Commissioners adopted a motion that called for an investigation of the previous week’s events. The resulting entity – The Office of the Special Advisor to the Board of Police Commissions on the Civil Disorder in Los Angeles – was to be led by former Federal Bureau of Investigations Director Judge William H. Webster, and thus became known as The Webster Commission. The Commission was tasked with:
investigating the LAPD’s pre-April 29th riot preparation,
investigating the LAPD’s response to the riot, and
recommending departmental improvements in the case of a future riot.
During the 163-day course of its work, over 100 volunteers – namely legal counsel – worked to prepare their findings and provide suggestions for future departmental activity. The final 222-page report, The City in Crisis, was released to the Board of Police Commissions on October 21, 1992, concluding that the LAPD was not solely responsible for the uprising or what many considered a failed law enforcement response to the uprising. Rather, a range of persons and entities, including governmental bodies, community leaders, and the news media – as well as and contextual “inner city” (p. 3) problems such as poverty, strained relationships between the department and those it policed, a “majority of” racial and ethnic “minorities” (p.35), the crack cocaine epidemic, and street gangs – are reported to have turned L.A. into a “tinderbox” (p. 41), vulnerable to ignition with even the smallest of flames. Recommendations related to this conclusion, totaling 16 core recommendations and 16 sub-recommendations, were organized around the themes of preventing future riots, improving emergency preparedness plans, and upgrading emergency response procedures and infrastructure.
During its work, the Commission negotiated an agreement with the University of Southern California library’s Special Collections Department to archive the material artifacts it had collected and studied. The records, which were sealed for a period of 20 years, were given to the University on October 30, 1992 and are now publicly accessible through the library’s Regional History Collection. Housed in 40 boxes, the collection contains items from 1931 to 1992, including newspaper clippings, scholarly research reports, press releases, interview transcripts and summaries, community meeting summaries and excerpts, LAPD internal affairs documents, legal briefings, recordings of City Council meetings, recordings of televised new stories and radio broadcasts, survey data, and emergency response plans specific to L.A. and the state of California. Further, the archive contains artifacts specific to the working of the Commission: correspondences, timelines, status reports, report drafts, press releases, budgets, and fundraising letters. It is this collection of documents and artifacts in which I base my dissertation research.
Below, you will find examples of documents that were included in the archive, with an emphasis on documents that I focused on as part of my archival analysis.
Given the close attention my research methods requires that I pay to the language of the Commission’s final report and their archival documents, I am intrigued by this brief document. The subtitle of the Commission’s final report, The City in Crisis is A Report by the Special Advisor to the Board of Police Commissioners on the Civil Disorder in Los Angeles. This document is one clue in helping us understand why the Commission chose the language of “civil disturbance” rather than another term life riot, uprising, or insurrection. By not opting for language that implies the rejection of state authority, the Commission ultimately de-politicized the actions of those who took to the streets. The language of disorder, however, (which is not included on this document), begs the question of why the Commission did not use the language of disturbance or riot.
Toward the end of its tenure, the Commission held seven town hall style meetings throughout the city. The only meeting for which a transcript was included in the archive is the first meeting. This meeting, which was held as Foshay Junior High School, was the closest of the seven meetings to the epicenter of the uprising at Florence and Normandie. A diverse age range of voices was represented at this meeting, as well as a diversity of perspectives on the police and their response to the uprising.
One of the interactions that is most compelling to me is that with Tut Hayes (who I have seen on several occasions in recent years representing his community at the LAPD Board of Police Commissioners meetings). On and up to pages 58 and 59 we see Hayes make a demand that the police “get out of the way” when conflicts occur in Black communities, stating that “Black people are going to take back their community.” In response, one facilitator asks Hayes if he was “talking about maybe something similar to community-based policing.” From an outsider’s perspective, this reads as both an inability to make sense of the out-of-the-box demands being made by Hayes, as well as the Commission’s predetermined interest in community-based policing. Indeed, other Commission documents show that by this point in the Commission’s process drafts of the final report were already being written. This that the community meetings may have been more symbolic than there were actually influential upon the Commission’s final recommendations.
A significant portion of the Commission’s archive was correspondence — either internal to the Commission or with non-members. This series of correspondence was initiated by the President of the Board of Police Commissioners, Stanley Sheinbaum, alerting the Webster Commission members to what he perceived as too radical a perspective on the LAPD’s response to the uprising. Counsel member and Staff Director Richard Stone’s replies to thank Sheinbaum for passing along the materials. I am drawn to this set of materials for multiple reasons, including Sheinbaum’s interjection of his own ideas into what as to be an independent commission. Additionally, it is interesting to see how Sheinbaum — someone known in L.A. at the time as a left-wing reformer — reacted to a perspective more radical than his own.
Throughout the course of their work, the Commission conducted hundreds of interviews with individuals such as police officers, community-based organization leaders, religious leaders, elected officials, and LAPD civilian employees. All interviews were summarized rather than transcribed, which resulted in an unfortunate loss of information for researchers. However, the summaries still provide a great deal of information about both the work of the Commission and the perspectives of those interviewed.
This is an example of one interview summary. The interview was with Troy Smith, who at the time was the Director of the Greater Watts Justice Center, whose main mission was to provide legal aid to Angelenos. What is most interesting to me about Smith’s testimony is his insight about why some Angelenos engaged in property destruction and violence in wake of the infamous acquittals. For Smith, years of maltreatment coupled with with the high-profile beating of Rodney King caused a metaphoric dam to break for Black Angelenos. Further, the summary describes him as arguing that “the King verdict “happened” to the entire African-American community at once.” This interpretation of the uprising stands in contrast to that held by other members of the community as a result of the misbehavior of gang members and other members of the community who were perceived as deviant.
Another of the Commission’s hundreds of interviews was with Bert Davila, Director of the Specialized Gang Supervision Unit with the L.A. County Probation Department. More interesting to me than the contents of the interview were the documents that Davila provided the Commission related to the truce between the Bloods and Crips during the uprising. These documents detail an extensive and well-thought out plan to bring racial and economic justice to L.A. While the entire proposal put forth by the Bloods and Crips is compelling, their plan to reform law enforcement in the city is of particular relevance to my project.
In addition to internal correspondence between Commissioners, the archive also contains a significant amount of correspondence between the Commissioners and community members. Some of these letters were from individuals following up about their community meeting testimony. Many others seem to have not attended community meetings but still wanted the Commission to account for their perspectives. I have included here a sampling of these letters. Together, the letters demonstrate the complex pressures put on the Commission, including political pressures seemingly unrelated to the actual uprising.