(Editor’s note: Sunday, April 29, marks the 20th anniversary of the LA Riots, prompted in response to white cops being let off by an all-white jury in Simi Valley after the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King. I covered the riots from an LGBT point of view. Morris Kight was inside the First AME Church immediately after the verdict and I traveled down to the church in South Central with LA Gay & Lesbian Community Services Center executive director Torie Osborn and communications director David Smith. But we were late and parked on a side street. As Torie and David got signs from the back, I looked down the street and saw a crowd coming our way. I pulled out my little Frontiers press pass, thinking it would “protect” us so we could get to the church. A few neighbors saw what we were about to do and urgently told us to get the hell out of there. We did and as we were turning to head home, a caravan of cars with angry young men passed by. I later recognized one of those men as I watched the live televised beating of white truck driver Reginald Denny. For several days, I covered how the riots impacted people with HIV/AIDS as the Minority AIDS Project and AIDS Project Los Angeles were forced to shutter for a few days; how employees and neighbors saved Jewel’s Catch One from being burned down; how gays helped fight fires and joined in the city-wide clean up. But one of the most extraordinary stories was how LAPD Officer Lisa Phillips saved her partner and a civilian – earning her the LAPD’s Medal of Valor. Here’s Lisa’s recollection of that time. – Karen Ocamb)
Remembering the LA Riots
By LAPD Sgt. Lisa Phillips
It’s been 20 years since I drove with my partner Dan Nee – lights flashing and siren blaring – into and through the intersection of Florence and Normandie, desperately searching for a victim of the LA Riots.
On April 29, 1992, Dan and I were headed to the 77th Street Command Post when we heard an emergency radio call that a woman was trapped in her car and was being assaulted with rocks and bottles. She was described as small in stature, Korean and alone in her car. I’m sure she was frightened and had thoughts of death as she sat there wondering how she might survive. If she was still alive, that is.
That’s what my partner and I were thinking as we sped through the streets of South Central LA. We didn’t speak much, other than tactics, what we would do and how we would do it. That is, if we even found our victim.
We pushed on, through the gathering crowds of people, angry crowds of people. Cars on fire, buildings on fire, people running through the streets as if all hell had broken loose in Los Angeles. We pushed on, my partner driving, me slumping just below the level of the window, just enough to see the hordes of people running up to our police car, throwing rocks and bottles – trying not to be taken out before we even found our victim.
The closer we got to the general vicinity of where our victim was supposed to be, the more we realized that the chance of serious injury or death to one or both of us was a distinct possibility. We knew we were very vulnerable so my partner Dan, and I confided in each other and asked each other to contact our loved ones if something were to happen. Dan gave me the number for his wife – and I made a decision that would change the course of my career from that moment on, although I didn’t think about it at the time. I wrote the name and number of my partner on his arm. I asked him to call her if something happened to me. He assured me he would and I believed him and trusted him more than anything or anyone at that moment.
I had just come out to him. In our race to try and save someone’s life, speeding through the city of angels, I had just come out of the closet to my partner Dan. And Dan didn’t care. Dan just cared about watching my back and I just cared about sending him home to his wife.
We got to the intersection and inched our way through the angry crowd towards our victim. She was trapped in her car, being beaten by a couple of men who seemed hell- bent on taking their rage out on an innocent woman who was just trying to get home to her family. We saw one man reached through the window, hitting her with another man on the roof. They scattered as we approached.
Dan jumped out and rushed to the victim as I called in the situation. The woman was unconscious and Dan had to struggle to get her out. But as he was carrying her back to our patrol car, someone threw a bottle and struck him in the head. Dan went down, dazed, and the woman fell with him. I pulled out my gun, waved it at the angry crowd and rushed to Dan. I helped him up and guarded him as he picked up the woman and we made our way back to the car. Once inside, we administered first aid to the victim and rushed her to the hospital.
She was lucky that day – we were lucky that day. We all got to go home to our loved ones. It was a good few minutes, all in all. That is, if you take away the hell the three of us went through to get to those couple of good moments.
Those moments and the many moments that followed changed the course of my career for many years to come.
I had come out of the closet to my partner. And even though it could have stayed in the car with us, I made the decision to officially come out to the entire Department, the whole community, the whole City of Los Angeles.
My partner and I were awarded the Medal of Valor for our bravery that day. Any cop would have done the same if they had been the ones to answer that radio call, of that I’m certain. But it was Dan and I – and we did the best job we could have done.
Because of that, and because we were recognized for what we had done, and because the LGBT community, my community, was fighting for the right to serve openly in the military, fighting for the right to be recognized as equal on my Department – I made the decision to accept that recognition as an openly gay cop. It was one of the best decisions of my life and one that afforded me many opportunities to do my part to change the atmosphere on the LAPD.
At the time, in 1992/1993, only a few brave cops had come out – six to be exact. It was not a good atmosphere. The LAPD had no anti-discrimination policy and we had never aggressively recruited in the LGBT community. It was not and did not feel like a safe place to be a gay police officer. Cops that were thought to be gay would be taunted, picked on and not protected if they made any kind of complaint against a peer or supervisor. For these reasons, I came out on a large scale. I wanted to show my fellow officers, my superiors, the City leaders, my community, that we were there, we could do the job just as well as anyone else – and that most of all, we deserved to be on the job.
Things began to change. The Grobeson Settlement started taking hold and I began working in the Recruitment office, and began aggressively recruiting in the LGBT community, everywhere I could: the rodeo, the parade in WEHO, Long Beach, The Valley. Radio shows, recruitment posters, LGBT papers. With the help of many in the community, we petitioned Chief of Police Willie Williams to create a position in his office that would reach out to the LGBT community. That position was, and still is, the Liaison to the LGBT community. That position opened many doors, and continues to push those doors even further open.
Back then, in 1994, it was difficult to gain the trust of the community. The LAPD had such a bad reputation for its treatment in how we handled a variety of calls from the LGBT community. Hate crimes were not thoroughly investigated, same-gender domestic violence was woefully underreported and when police did respond, they did a bad job interviewing the parties involved. Transgender people were treated very poorly. I could go on but we’ve all been there. We all probably have a story to tell.
But since the creation of the Liaison position, which I was the first to hold, things really began to change. A bridge began to be built. The police and the LGBT community began to meet one another and a dialogue began for the first time in LA history. A trust began to evolve and community leaders began working with the police, and the police opened their minds and began working with the community.
Things have continued to improve and when we first marched in the CSW Pride Parade in 1995, with 3 cops; myself, Marc Goodman and Paul Butler ( with the assistance of several of my friends in civies), it was one of the proudest moments of my life. Even though we were few, and even though many gay cops at the time didn’t trust us, we pushed on, hoping and believing that things would continue to change for the better, and they have indeed changed for the better.
When I came on the job 23 years ago, Chief Gates was in power and he didn’t like gay folk patrolling his streets. He was not open to change and he fought it. After the riots, when Gates was forced out, Chief Williams was brought in from Philadelphia, an outsider. Many higher-ups on the LAPD did not support him, but Chief Williams was a bit of a visionary. Perhaps because he was a black man and had seen discrimination up close and personal. Perhaps he felt the struggle and wanted to change what he could. He was the one who agreed to create the Liasion position. And though it could not have been easy for him, he did it, and changed the Department forever.
I will forever be thankful for him for having the guts to say “yes.” Yes to the position, yes to us marching in the parade (in uniform), yes to us aggressively recruiting in the LGBT community, yes to allowing me to open the first Stop-In Center at the LA Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Hollywood. He said yes a lot, and I know he got a lot of pushback from his underlings. But he had the guts, and could see the future.
Chief Parks became the Chief of Police after Williams left, and continued to be open to working with the community. Although he did not as openly reflect on the inevitable change that was taking place, he did not get in the way or stall the course of events. I worked with him on many things and he remained open to suggestions, always treating me with respect and dignity, just as Chief Williams had done. The relationship with the community continued to grow, and I continued on with my career, making Sergeant in 1998 and moving out of the Liaison position. Others would take my place and continue to grow that position. Other gay cops continued to come out to their partners and as society changed, so did the atmosphere on the LAPD. Reports of unfair treatment lessened and gay cops felt more empowered to speak up, if they did.
Now, when the parade rolls around in June, there are openly gay cops from all over the state marching with us. There are a lot more than three of us these days and many high-ranking officers march with us – including the Chief of Police and the LA County Sheriff. It’s quite a change from the early days.
I was, am, and will forever be proud to wear my LAPD uniform. I know things aren’t where they need to be – but they are a hell-of-a lot better than they were when I came on the job in 1989.
I’m confident things will continue to improve – and there truly is strength in numbers, strength in stepping up and being authentic, living your life as you are.