As Gary Labb and three other Santa Ana police officers drove to Los Angeles nearly 20 years ago to help police there take back the streets from rioters, the smell of burning buildings brought back memories of the Watts Riots.
“In 1965 it was very similar,” Labb recalled. “I was in high school and my dad had a business in Los Angeles that I would go over to sometimes. It was the same thing — that burned-out building smell. It remains with you.”
The stench of torched buildings greeted the officers even before they saw the smoke rising and people “cussed” the officers out as they finished the long ride from Santa Ana to Los Angeles April 30, 1992, Labb said.
“None of us had any idea what we were in for,” the retired detective said. “It was kind of scary. After we started heading that way we thought, ‘What are we getting ourselves into?’”
Labb and about 50 other Santa Ana officers were honored Friday, April 20, by Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck, who gave them pins to mark their service as they pitched in to help handle the riots sparked by the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney King.
Labb got the long-delayed ceremony rolling a couple of years ago when he noticed some of the officers attending the funeral of a Marine killed in Afghanistan had pins from the 1992 riots. Labb and the officers were attending the funeral of Sgt. Maj. Robert J. Cottle, a Los Angeles police SWAT team member.
When Labb asked about the pins, an assistant chief with the LAPD heard him and soon started looking into getting honors for the Santa Ana police.
“Now is a good time to recognize that it does take all of us,” Beck said, adding the anniversary also factored into the timing of the ceremony.
Mutual aid responses are common with firefighters, but not so much with the police, Beck said. The help that came from so many other law enforcement agencies was a big relief, said Beck, whose job at the time was giving assignments to the responding officers outside of Los Angeles.
“As we saw people come in you saw a ray of hope, that maybe we could regain control of the streets,” Beck said. “As a police officer, up to that time I had never experienced that kind of feeling of powerlessness.”
Labb said the Santa Ana officers were happy to help because it was clear the LAPD was overwhelmed.
“At one point we were flagged down by a store owner who said he had just been looted,” Labb said.
“So we chased down the looters, caught them and called the LAPD. They came out, got the property back to the store owner, interviewed the suspects and then freed them. They were so overwhelmed they didn’t have time to take them away. That kind of shocked me, but it was understandable.”