Analysis / Forces

Buttressing Institutional Integrity in an Election Year: Federal Force Deployment during L.A. Riots (1992)

This case vignette is part of the CSIS Institutional Integrity project, which examines the potential and responsible role of Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security federal forces in U.S. presidential election and transition contexts. For more information on the laws and norms that guide federal force deployments, see “Buttressing Institutional Integrity in an Election Year.”

“What we saw last night and in the night before in Los Angeles is not about civil rights. It’s not about the great cause of equality that all Americans must uphold. It’s not a message of protest. It’s been the brutality of a mob, pure and simple. And let me assure you, I will use whatever force is necessary to restore order. What is going on in L.A. must and will stop. As your President, I guarantee you, this violence will end.”

– President George H.W. Bush (May 1, 1992)

On April 29, 1992, violence erupted across the city of Los Angeles in response to the jury acquittal of four police officers involved in the excessive beating of Rodney King, an African American man. For multiple reasons, including the specific context that spurred the violence, the L.A. Police Department (LAPD) was “uncharacteristically unresponsive” during the initial days of unrest, and tensions on the ground continued to escalate.

At the request of L.A. mayor Tom Bradley, California’s Governor, Pete Wilson, deployed the National Guard. Governor Wilson and Mayor Bradley formally requested federal support from President Bush as well, and explicitly requested that the President invoke the Insurrection Act.

On May 1, President Bush signed Executive Order 12804 federalizing the California National Guard and pledging to send federal forces. The Pentagon activated ‘Operation Garden Plot’—the DoD’s civil disturbance plan—forming Joint Task Force-LA (JTF-LA). It was reported that 4,000 Army and Marine troops and 1,000 federal officers, including U.S. Marshals and Customs and Border Patrol agents, were deployed to maintain order.

The riots eventually subsided, but not without controversy. Though state and federal government were in agreement that reinforcements were necessary, there are some criticisms that the mission of quelling civil unrest was not properly executed. Inefficiencies, communication issues, and lack of proper training led to some coordination concerns between the National Guard and deployed federal forces.

Additionally, Customs and Border Patrol agents were operating beyond the immediate mission by conducting immigration sweeps while deployed.[i] Mike Hernandez, who at the time was serving as city-councilman to the predominantly Latino Pico-Union neighborhood in L.A, recounts that “the response to me when I said I needed the National Guard to protect the people of the area and I needed to protect the business and the homes, they gave me the Border Patrol. It was totally an insult.”

Today, commentators point to diverging legacies of the L.A. Riots to either support or rebuke President Trump’s recent federal force deployments. Some, like Senator Tom Cotton, note that federal reinforcements were necessary in the past because “deadly rioting would only multiply victims” and assert that same logic should be used when dealing with violent protests today. There are, however, some clear distinctions between the 1992 deployments and what we are seeing today. The civil unrest was arguably far worse in 1992—in the span of 3 days where violence was at its highest in L.A., over 60 people were killed, over 2,000 injured, and the city was left with hundreds of millions in property damage. Additionally, it was a clear instance where local law enforcement was overwhelmed and requesting support from the federal government. Moreover, execution issues aside, there was a strong desire at the state and federal levels for collaboration. Lessons learned from the response to the 1992 riots led to some changes in the LAPD but does not seem to have informed changes at the federal level, which was a missed opportunity. After-action reviews of more recent use of federal forces in American communities should be shared with the public to the greatest extent possible as part of accountability and improvement efforts.

(Photo credit: HAL GARB/AFP via Getty Images)