The dangerous domino effect of urban violence

From seemingly harmless events, a cascade of riots and mayhem can follow. Just look at the examples in Detroit, Watts and the 1992 violence in Los Angeles

Everything is related to everything else, according to ecologist Barry Commoner. This is proven to be true in cities every day.

If a driver slows on an expressway, a chain reaction back a few kilometres slows everybody down. When this causes 1,000 people to be late for work, there’s a loss of economic activity.

There are also positive chain reactions. More public transit results in less pollution. More walking is healthy and reduces traffic.

There are also tragic chain reactions. Miscommunication in crowds and at protests leads to tragedy. Rumours spread that a protester has died and this leads to violence. This is why the current thinking in police circles is to be in and with the crowd, not in riot gear or bunched up, in order to report to other cops what’s going on without relying on rumours.

In America, with some help from media and technology, tragedy is amplified. It’s astounding how many full-scale riots result from a routine traffic stop or other less-than-noteworthy police action. The Detroit riot in 1967, the Watts violence in Los Angeles in 1965 and the 1992 Rodney King riot in L.A. all began with minor police actions.

In Detroit, it was a raid on an unlicensed pub. Watts began as an arrest for drunk driving.

Motorist King was stopped by the California Highway Patrol in March 1991. There was a high-speed chase before King was tasered, hit with batons and beaten while lying on the ground. It was all videotaped. Thirteen days later, a Korean shopkeeper shot and killed a 15-year-old black girl in an argument over a bottle of juice.

The shopkeeper was ultimately fined and ordered to community service.

And a year after King was stopped, three police officers were acquitted of assault with a deadly weapon.

Race came into play since King was black, the officers were white and nine of the 12 jurors were white. African-Americans protested and were soon joined by Hispanics. There was also tension between these groups and Koreans.

There were random attacks on motorists, along with looting, arson, 2,383 injuries, 8,000 arrests, 51 deaths, 700 businesses burned, and an estimated $1 billion in damages. Half the arrests and more than one-third of those killed were Hispanic.

Armed Koreans protected their businesses, resulting in gun battles on the streets.

The riots were finally stopped with the help of curfews, the National Guard, regular soldiers and some U.S. Marines.

The Justice Department said it would investigate, and when the riots ended the officers were charged with violating King’s civil rights. In April 1993, two officers were convicted and imprisoned. King was awarded $3.8 million in damages from the city. He died in June 2012.

Various reports placed blame and suggested solutions.

Unlike the riots of the 1960s, this one was said to have been fuelled partly by a backlash by African Americans against others moving into their communities. But some reports also blamed economic isolation of the inner city. Poor police-community relations were also cited.

One proposed solution was more emphasis on police foot patrols and making patrols criteria for promotion. A report called for more police to report assaults by other officers.

There was also a call for better emergency response planning and training in the police force, and in the city as a whole.

Training, experience on the street and a better economy are worthy goals. There’s also the philosophical question of how important routine traffic stops or pub raids are in our society. Police can use discretion, knowing how these things get out of control.

But then there’s the danger of the drunk driver in the back of the cop’s mind. The one you let go might kill a pedestrian.

Tough calls, since everything is related to everything else.

Troy Media columnist Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He is the author of Safer Cities.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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