In the wake of the recent UK riots, the BBC has an article on lessons learned from the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which reminded me of my own favorite lesson learned from that incident – which has to do with communication.
Everyone is, I think, well aware that the national guard were deployed to maintain order in Los Angeles, subordinate to the LAPD. What’s much less well-known is that the USMC were also deployed, subordinate to the LASD. They weren’t used to quell rioting, but to provide security for government and other “critical” buildings – and to provide security for sheriff’s deputies as they went about their business in the county.
It was the first time in decades Marines had ever deployed in a major civil support role. They had no training, no procedures, no special equipment – and that’s, in part, where my favorite anecdote from the whole thing arises.
When the national guard deploy in civil-support operations, they do so with limiter plates installed on their weapons, which restrict them to semi-automatic fire only. Today, I believe the same is true of the USMC. It was not the case in 1992, however; the Marines were issued fully-automatic weapons.
On the second day of the rioting, a four-man fire team of Marines in a HMMWV were assigned to escort a deputy serving a felony warrant in Los Angeles. The exact scope of their role was unclear; they’d received no real briefing or instructions, beyond a vague “keep the deputy safe”. The deputy led the way in his cruiser; the Marines followed.
They arrived at the address, and dismounted. As the deputy began to approach the address in question, shots were fired from inside the home from a shotgun. Everyone dove for cover. A couple seconds passed, and the deputy decided to advance up next to the front door, to try to engage the occupants in a conversation.
He stood up in a crouch, and shouted “Cover me!” to the Marines.
What he wanted was for them to watch the door and windows for movement, et cetera. The standard law enforcement interpretation of “cover me”.
What they did was to discharge between 200 and 300 rounds of fully-automatic suppressing fire into the building from three M-16s and an M-60 – the, one might argue, standard Marine interpretation of “cover me” when you are yourself taking fire.
Nobody was injured, the people inside the house immediately surrendered, and some quick clarifications were issued to all Marines concerning the rules of engagement and nuances of “cover” as it applies to law enforcement. All’s well that ends well, and whatnot.
It’s cited frequently in law-enforcement circles as a great demonstration of why communication – why standardized communication – is so important. It’s also a demonstration of why using the military to quell domestic disturbances – as people in the UK were calling for – is not a spectacular idea. Get even the best-trained troops into stressful and confused situations, and they can – and will – fall back on the training and reflexes that have been drilled into them – training and reflexes designed around a battlefield, not a friendly town or city. “Let’s fire into the house for sixty seconds” seems, under the circumstances, a perfectly reasonable idea. Deploy the Army in London, and you’re potentially one molotov cocktail, one screamed command away from a disaster nobody wants.