Records of the Riots: The Christopher and Webster Commission Records Collections

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/02/13


Photo by Anne-Marie Gregg

On April 29, 1992, chaos erupted on the streets of Los Angeles after a mostly white jury acquitted four Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers in the beating of a black motorist, Rodney King. The rioting lasted six days, and the National Guard was called in to patrol the streets around USC. Twenty-one years later, the city is still trying to make sense of the unrest. 

Now, two newly unsealed collections at the USC Libraries will help scholars better understand the violence, its causes, and its legacy. The collections—recently processed with support from the Council on Library and Information Resources—contain the records of two independent commissions set up to investigate the Los Angeles Police Department in the wake of the King beating and the 1992 riots.

On March 3, 1991, an amateur videographer captured footage of four LAPD officers beating King at the conclusion of a high-speed pursuit. Widely shown on television, the scene raised questions about the LAPD’s practices and culture. To investigate complaints of excessive force and institutional racism, city officials empaneled an independent commission chaired by prominent Los Angeles attorney and future U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Officially known as the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department, the panel reviewed over one million pages of documents and interviewed hundreds of witnesses, including police officers, civic leaders, academic experts, and members of the community. In July 1991, the commission issued a report that was acutely critical of the LAPD’s policing policies, its attitude toward the use of force, and its tolerance of racism and sexism within its ranks. It also called for the retirement of the department’s chief, Daryl Gates.

After the 1992 riots, another commission came together to investigate the LAPD’s response to the civil unrest. Chaired by former FBI and CIA chief William Webster, the panel probed LAPD policies, training materials, and tactical plans to understand how the department allowed the rioting to spiral out of control. After extensive interviews and a broad review of policing policies in other cities, the Webster Commission concluded that the LAPD had been insufficiently prepared for civil disturbances and called for better coordination between police officials and civic leaders.

After the Christopher and Webster commissions published their respective reports, the records—90 boxes of audio and video recordings of interviews, court transcripts, internal LAPD documents, and other materials—were sealed for a period of twenty years. In preparation for their unsealing, USC Libraries archivists organized and documented the commissions’ records and created two detailed finding aids.

On Monday, April 29—the 21st anniversary of the outbreak of the riots—the USC Libraries present a Visions and Voices panel discussion to consider questions that remain about the unrest and its causes more than two decades later. Participants include the Rev. Dr. Cecil Murray, formerly pastor at First African Methodist Episcopal Church and currently a senior fellow at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture; writer and journalist Erin Aubry Kaplan; documentary filmmaker Dae Hoon Kim; and Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA.

The event begins at 4:00 p.m. in the Friends of the USC Libraries Lecture Hall in Doheny Memorial Library. Admission is free and open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis. Selected materials from the two collections will be on display.

For more information about the Christopher and Webster commission records, please contact Dace Taube at (213) 821-2366 or taube@usc.edu.

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