By Ken Roybal
Retired LAPD Police Officer Ken Roybal is featured as a guest writer! In this blogpost he recalls the infamous LA RIOTS in 1992. He writes about how PTSD from his experiences affected him long after the riots ended.
To read a juxtaposed perspective from my own experience as a young child during those same riots, read my blog post entitled Riots: Full Circle.
Fast forward to the civil unrest in 2020 in my blog post entitled De-Mobilized: From Hero to “Killer Cop” for a complete packaged perspective from cops then and now!
Without further ado, BURDEN BEYOND THE BADGE brings you: “It Grips Your Mind: Police, Riots & PTSD“.
PTSD is one powerful and painful bastard that grips the mind. I mean – it grips your mind.
I was a twelve-year LAPD copper in April 1992 when a Simi Valley jury voted to not convict four LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney King. Whatever you think of Rodney King, the trial, or the officers are insignificant in this story. On April 29, 1992 I became a statistic in the war on PTSD.
I reported to Wilshire Station at 10:00 am to start my regular shift in an administrative assignment. I went to the LA County Sheriff’s West Hollywood Station to drop off some items. On my way back to the station I heard on the news that the trial for former LAPD officers Stacy Koon, Timothy Wind, Ted Briseno, and Lawrence Powell had resulted in a not guilty jury verdict for all of the defendants. I didn’t think much of it as I drove back to the station. After all, Simi Valley was miles away from Los Angeles. The verdicts came in at about 3:00 pm. By 6:00 pm South Central LA was burning and the ensuing violence made headlines around the world.
Wilshire Division is in the mid-city area of Los Angeles. That area was on fire as well as Central and South Bureaus.The LAPD was mobilized and every officer was assigned to 12-hour shifts. Every officer was ordered to report to their divisions and suit up. Days off and vacations were canceled. We were all assigned to twelve officer squads and waited for orders to deploy. The parking lot at Wilshire Station was electrified. You could sense that every officer was ready to go to war against the violent criminals who were beating innocent victims out of rage and burning the city down. “Officer needs help” calls were starting to come in. I saw an eerie sight that was symbolic of what was to come for the next week: In the middle of the street — directly across from the police station — a huge trash bin was on fire.
My squad was finally deployed to round up looters next door to the station. We drove there in three police cars – four officers in each car. How dare looters break in and steal from stores at the Midtown Shopping Center right next door to the station. We would bravely round them up and arrest them. To jail with these criminals. It didn’t go as planned.
We entered the shopping center parking lot from Venice Blvd. Our squad was joined by another squad of twelve officers. We exited our cars and started taking looters into custody. Then we heard a sound slightly familiar. It was metal hitting metal. Snipers were shooting at us from across Venice Blvd. We yelled at the looters to run as rounds continued to hit our cars. All of the officers ran to the cars and beat feet to cover. I could still hear bullets hitting our car as we took cover behind a bank building. We got out of our cars once we were in a safe place. I thought something had hit my car door. I went to check it out and found a round had struck the door and glanced off as we made our escape. It Ieft a sizeable dent and the paint was gone. One of the squad leaders, Sgt. Nick Sinibaldi, gathered us together and made sure no one was shot. All were well. Then he said, “What do you guys think? You wanna go get them?!” We all yelled in the affirmative and scrambled to our cars. We raced across Venice Blvd to where the shooters would have launched their attack. In true wuss fashion – they were gone.
I went home at 6:00 am the next morning and reported back to the station for the 6:00 pm roll call. From the freeway I could see the city was on fire, The next day our squad was assigned to protect the fire department from being shot at. The city didn’t take a break and entire swaths of city blocks were on fire. People were violently attacked and yanked from their cars. They were beaten mercilessly. Our work to take back the city was ahead of us. The Marines and National Guard were on the way. Mutual aid from cities across the state joined us by sending patrol officers to LA. None of us realized it at the time, but deadly stress was sneaking into the emotional fabric of every officer.
The second evening my squad received a call to a shooting in progress at 3rd St & Irolo Ave. When we arrived we saw a car that had come to an abrupt stop in the middle of the street. It was literally filled with bullet holes. Outside the car on the sidewalk were four young Korean-American men who had been shot numerous times. In a terrible set of circumstances, the men had been shot from a rooftop by other young Korean-Americans who mistook them for looters. Three of the shot men were leaning against a store front while the fourth one, later identified as Edward Song Lee, was laying in the street. Edward was laying on his back with his eyes glazed over. I stood next to him and waited for the fire department ambulance to arrive. The LAFD R/A units were taking forever due to the riots eating up their resources and delaying response times.I listened to Edward’s husky breaths get more and more shallow. The ambulance wouldn’t arrive for 20 minutes. Edward died next to me before help could arrive.I watched him exit life in a most unspectacular way.
I worked the riots for two weeks and the looting and burning finally subsided. That wasn’t the end of it for me. Within a month I started exhibiting physical symptoms of distress. Physical and mental issues crept in and I didn’t know what was happening to me. I decided to see a city doctor the month following the riots. The doctor diagnosed me with PTSD. He also suggested I see the department psychologist, which I did. The psych told me she had been seeing about 6X the number of officers she saw in a given month. None of the officers I knew ever spoke about what was going on, but a bunch of us secretly saw the psychologist.
The physical symptoms finally began to subside after a few weeks. My body decided to calm down after getting help. However, the nightmares lasted about a year. I would dream about Edward Song Lee’s death. Many times I tried to get out of the dream because I would just relive watching him die and being unable to help. The very last time I had a nightmare was the breaking point – in a good way. I remember dreaming about Edward and trying to fight my way out of the dream. I was trapped in the dream, but I somehow managed to bang on the wall next to the bed and that woke me up. My wife was already up and I was so upset I jumped out of bed and yelled at her for not waking me when I was in distress. She was startled but never held it against me. I don’t know what happened that day. I never dreamed about Edward again. I remember him every April 30th.
So, that’s my story. I can’t imagine what yours is if you’ve got PTSD from the 2020 riots. If you think you were traumatized and are having symptoms – I encourage you to get the help you need. You don’t want the dreams to last. We can all do this together. God bless.
By Ken Roybal