'Let It Fall': Lisa Phillips, an LAPD officer, remembers the day the riots broke out

PHOTO: Lisa Phillips of the LAPD spoke to "Let It Fall: LA 1982-1999," an ABC News documentary, about the Rodney King beating and the trial that acquitted white police officers.PlayLet It Fall/ABC
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In 1989, the year Lisa Phillips got her badge, she was one of only a handful of women in her graduating class with the Los Angeles Police Department.

Phillips said that back then, she was living two lives: one, as openly gay; and the other, as a police officer who shared little to nothing of her personal life. In April 1992, the 33-year-old Phillips was assigned to the 77th division in South Central, Los Angeles, and was on foot patrol with her partner when riots broke out following the acquittals of four white police officers in the Rodney King beating trial. Disobeying retreat orders, they entered the fray to rescue an Asian woman from a brutal attack.

"Let It Fall: LA 1982-1992," an ABC News documentary television event, airs April 28 at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. central), marking the 25th anniversary of the L.A. uprising.

In an interview for the documentary "Let It Fall,” Phillips shared her memories from 1992, and discussed her personal journey and experiences as a female officer. The following are excerpts, in her own words.

EARLY YEARS

I grew up in Maryland and-- back in those days, in the '70s-- it was beautiful. Horse country. Farms. Lots of open roads… But the attitudes were still very backwards for me. Not a whole lot of African Americans around. Not a whole lot of any other-- anybody else's-- but whites around, honestly.

I didn't know what to call it because back then you didn't say "gay" -- it was either "homosexual," or "queer," or "faggot," or "dyke.” … But I acted as if it wasn't there because-- who are you gonna tell? Who are you gonna talk to in 1972? You know? In the '70s-- homosexuality wasn't really discussed… I acted straight. I had a boyfriend. I knew it wasn't me. But at the same it wasn't really-- it didn't feel like there was an alternative.

I played the part until I realized that my mom's brother was gay. And he lived in California. And for my getting out of high school he said, "Why don't you come to LA and stay with me for the summer?" I said, "Okay." And I came to Los Angeles, North Hollywood, and he introduced me to this whole community of gay people.

After this experience…I said, "There's no way I can go back to Maryland… and pretend to be straight anymore.” I saved my money for two years bartending. And in two years-- I packed up a couple of suitcases, got on a plane, and moved to LA.

LOS ANGELES

LA symbolized freedom to me. Moving to California-- I moved because I felt stifled and oppressed in Maryland. Even though I loved my friends and family-- leaving my mom and dad was-- I still can see it-- remember crying at the airport. But I knew I needed to go a place where I could feel free, where I could be me and not worry as much about being beaten up, or called a dyke, or, you know, being chased down an alley -- so it represented freedom and openness and a place where I could be embraced as who I was

It was 1987 and I was 28. When I discovered West Hollywood it was like, "What? Are you kidding me?!” It was amazing. It was like Disneyland.

I never thought about being a cop…I was bartending and the LAPD was heavily recruiting. I heard a radio ad. And I sort of laughed and went, "Ha ha ha. That's funny." But then I thought about it and I thought, "Okay, you're almost 30… What are you gonna do?”

BECOMING A COP

I thought, "Well, I'll just take the written test, just to see what it's about.” And I went down and I took it and I passed. They signed me up for an oral interview. And the background was very extensive. And all of a sudden I get a letter in the mail, like, seven months later. "We're offering you a position in the-- in the May, 1989, class."

My academy was seven months… it's the hardest thing I've ever done and the most rewarding. In my class, I believe there were eight or nine women. On the whole department, there were about six percent women… I knew that I'd have to work three times as hard to be accepted. The feeling at the time, in most police departments, was women didn't belong on the job.

The LAPD at the time was a little bit of a boy's club. It was mostly men. It was mostly white men… But I was really lucky. I was accepted. I saw some other women that weren't accepted as easily as I was.

At that stage it was two different lives… being openly gay and had been since '77 and here it was 12 years later living as an openly gay women going into an atmosphere where they were no openly gay police officers. I knew I had to pick my timing. 1989 wasn't the time. At home I was out. But at work…I couldn't tell 'em, you know, I had a lover that was a girl. No way.

LAPD was still using oppressive tactics with gay people in the '80s…Gay people were still being talked about in derogatory terms amongst officers. Our chief at the time, Daryl Gates, very anti-gay. ‘I'll never have a queer working on my department.’ And that's what he said. And that's documented… And I thought, "Well, little do you know, chief, you got a lot of 'em. We're just not out yet."

UNDERSTANDING FEAR OF POLICE

Being a white police officer working in a neighborhood, be it Rampart or South Central, where the majority was not white-- I never felt particularly uneasy about it. I was called a lot of things. But so what? You know. Somebody called me a white devil once. I got called dyke. I got called-- a blue eyed devil. I'm like, 'I don't have blue eyes.' I would say back to 'em. Pig. Cracker. You know, terms that hearken back to the slave days. You know, the history of that. The whip. I understood it though.

I understood the animosity towards police. I understood the fear of police. And I understood it because I was gay I think…I understood what the gay community had gone through. So I understood the fear that another minority community had with police. So I wasn't angry at them for being angry at me or for not trusting me. I kind of got it. It didn't stop me from doing my job, whatever it is that I had to do, but it gave me a deeper understanding of where their anger might be coming from…. So, yeah, I had empathy. I understood, to a degree-- what their feelings were. ‘Cause I had felt them as a gay person.

THE RODNEY KING TRIAL

Boy, it was a tense time being a cop during the Rodney King trial. The African American community was up in arms. They were pissed off. And they had a right to be to a certain extent. It was a very dangerous time to be a police officer. It felt dangerous. You could feel the tension. I could feel the tension when I went to work. You could feel the hostility in the air. You could feel it every time you got a call. And back then we were answering 30 radios calls-- one car handling 30 radio calls in an eight hour day. Maybe more than that. That's just one car out of maybe eight or nine cars working in a division. And back then we only had, like, 7,000 cops.

APRIL 29, 1992

The day of the verdicts my partner and I were walking our foot beat like we did every day on Vermont. And we had this one shop that sold TV-- a TV repair shop. Really nice guy… a black fellow. And-- he was always friendly to us and we were friendly to them. We knew at 3:00 pm that the verdicts were gonna be read. So we planned on being at this repair shop. And we were on foot and our car was parked a few blocks away. You know, and we were mindful. The air was thick. You know, you could feel it. So at 3:00 pm we're standing around on the sidewalk with a couple of other people. We were watching the news. They started announcing the verdicts. Not guilty. Not guilty. More people started coming up because it was-- you know, the thing to do ‘cause he always had his TVs on.

And more people started coming. And as they read the fourth not guilty people were going, 'Oh, hell no. No way.' The whole mood-- it was already thick, but people were, 'Hey, Phillips… What's going on, boss?' to, you know, 'Oh, hell no.'" It was an anger. You could feel it. You could hear it. You could sense it. It was palpable. It was thick. It was there. And my partner and I looked at each other and we were like, ‘Man, we gotta get to our car.’

And we were the only two cops there. 'F---in pig.' I mean, it was-- they were infuriated. And they knew us… A lot of 'em knew us. But they didn't know us then. We were just cops then. We were just pigs then. We were the bad guy.

And we said, 'Let's go.' And we ran, we literally jogged back to our police car 'cause people were turning on us now. So we went back to our police car and…some violence started occurring. And the officers tried to arrest this guy. And so we started responding-- and they put out a backup call.

Well, we knew there was a high probability or possibility that we might get attacked… I was part of the problem. I wasn't Officer Phillips anymore. I was a f---ing cop. "You f---g pig." That's what I was. And I got it. I got it. I mean, I understood it, but "I'm going home. I'm not standing here anymore.”

And you could hear calls starting to come out. The radio got very busy with you know, 911 calls. It was starting to come unhinged. The train was coming off the tracks. You could feel it….

71st ST. & NORMANDIE FLASHPOINT

I think that was the 71st and Normandie event when the crowd tried to take this guy back from the police... And then the crowd got bigger. And the police got bigger. And then it sort of became this self-feeding frenzy-- us against them kind of thing on both sides. We were woefully understaffed. There were many more of them than us. And that's why Lt. Moulin had to make the decision he made initially to pull us back and wait for more people. Except more people weren't coming.

And it started, like, spreading out throughout the community… Every corner we turned there were ten more people, ten more people, 20 more people-- I mean, it just grew, and grew, and grew, it was, like I don't even know how to describe it…

The radio was putting out calls, like, the-- the radio operator couldn't speak quick enough to get her calls out. And these weren't calls, like, shoplifting. These were assault with deadly weapon, robbery in progress, assault with deadly weapon in progress, looting in progress. I mean, these were all code three calls, which are the highest priority-- lights and siren calls.

We knew we were all ordered not to go back to this area of Florence and Normandie because it had become completely unhinged. Hundreds and hundreds of people looting, burning buildings, smashing windows, stealing merchandise, anybody that wasn't black was getting their ass kicked.

THE RESCUE

My best memory is—“AWD in progress. 51st and Normandie. Asian woman being beaten to death in her car or assaulted in her car by a mob of 20 people.” Something like that. The call came out and it sort of hung there in the air with all the other calls. And we just said, 'Man, we can't-- we gotta go.”

And then we said, 'Well, what are the repercussions if we don't go? Somebody might die. We-- we gotta go.' [My partner’s] like, “Okay, we gotta go. You're driving.” And off we went. And we turned around -- one of us said, “I know we're gonna get in trouble for this.” And we said, “Well, whatever.'..."

As we got to Florence and Normandie the liquor store was on fire… We're getting attacked and surrounded with rocks, and bottles, and people. And there's hundreds of people. We're looking for our victim.

But I thought as we're driving there, “Man, I don't know. I don't know if we're gonna make it. It's just us. There's no other cops around.” My partner says, “I want you to call my wife if I get killed because you're my partner. I don't want somebody that she doesn't know to come knocking on the door.” I go, “All right. I'll call your wife.” And I thought, “I've got a lover, you know, at home. And nobody knows that she exists. Who's gonna tell her what if — who's gonna call my mom or my girlfriend?” I said, “Partner, look, I'm gay. You probably figured it out. But I'm coming out to you. I've got-- a lover' ”will you call her if something happens to me?' And-- he said, “Don't worry.” He said, “Partner, I got your back.” I said, “All right, I love you. Let's go.”

There was, like, 20 guys. And they scattered. Except one guy… One guy was leaning in the driver side and he had this woman by the collar. And he was beating the sh-t out of her. Punch-- punching her.

She was still seat belted in. She was bloody, unconscious. We thought she was dead….At that point I said, “We gotta get out of this car” Now we're being attacked now. We've got rocks and bottles coming at us. The glass is all in the street. I remember stepping out of the car and hearing the glass crunch under my boots.

He's running back to the car with this woman in his arms. We're being attacked, yelled at, screamed at. A rock or a bottle or something hits him in the back and he goes down in the street-- knocks him down. The woman rolls-- flies out of his arms into all this glass. I'll never forget when he fell. The crowd laughed. I'll never forget that my whole life. “OH, stupid f---kin' -- you know, whatever they were saying “pigs”. And I always thought to myself, “This is man's inhumanity to man right here. This is just-- this is what it's all about. This is the worst of the worst.” So I thought the woman was dead. I go to my partner—“Get up. Get up. Get up.” And he got up. We ran back up to the woman. He picked up an arm and a leg, I picked up an arm and a leg. And there's nowhere for the car to go. We don't have an exit. We don't have an escape route. There's nowhere to go.

My partner's eyes locked with somebody's in the crowd. I'm not sure how it all happened. But some people stepped aside and created a space big enough to let our car go through. It was either-- a beautiful thing or a self-preservation thing. I prefer to believe that it was-- it's something in their soul that they said, “We gotta let these people go.” And we got her into a room in the emergency room. And she came to and we realized, “Oh, thank goodness. She's not dead.”

POLICE RESPONSIBILITY

We didn't have anything good to say about the chain of command, meaning captains and above. They're the guys who dropped the ball in the first place. We gave them enough information where they should've had us ready to go. We should've been maximum deployed, as many cops working as possible, and ready to go.

Gates blamed Lt. Moulin, and I remember being angry about that because Lt. Moulin was a good guy. The blame was laid on him for losing control at the onset and therefore probably the blame for the whole riots. I think that's completely ludicrous, wrong, and irresponsible. I think Chief Gates is the one who should've stepped up and taken responsibility. And I think Moulin was a good Lieutenant and he fell on the sword. And he lost his career. And he shouldn't have. So I was very, very angry about that.

'L.A. FOUR'

There were periods of time throughout history in LA where white cops treated black guys bad, Hispanics bad, women bad, gay people bad-- a whole bunch of minorities bad. So I understand the anger. What I don't understand is the reaction with violence.

MEDAL OF VALOR

The board recommended that my partner and I receive the Medal of Valor for saving this woman's life, which was an honor. I think I was the sixth woman in the history of the department to be awarded that, which was a big deal for women. So I took advantage of the opportunity as a gay cop, too. 'Cause at that time there were only six cops [in the Department] who had come out as a group. And the press was all over me 'cause I was the only woman to win it that year. And I said, "Well, there's one more thing." I said, "I'm also-- a gay cop. And I'm coming out right now on the LAPD to you as an openly gay cop." And it was a very proud moment for me. And I'll never forget that 'cause it changed the course of a lot of things.

TRAILBLAZING

It changed the course of how the LAPD eventually dealt with the gay community. We pushed for many things after that. I became the first gay and lesbian liaison in the department's history. So I did a lot of work within the gay community. Worked at the Gay and Lesbian Center. Opened up a drop-in center for LAPD for victims of hate crimes, and marched in the parade for the first time as a group of openly gay officers.

We started and have continued to build a really good bridge of understanding between the gay community and the LAPD. We have affected a lot of police departments: Houston, Dallas, Orlando, Key West, Chicago. I got to go to the White House and work with President Clinton to rewrite the hate crimes, how we handle them as a department. I'm very proud of what I've done on the job.

April 29th, 1992, changed my life for the better without a doubt. I went through a lot-- a lotta scratching and clawing, and I walked the plank many a time. When I was driving with my partner and I came out to him-- doing that-- it changed my life. And in so many ways, it empowered me to not be afraid, to speak up when I felt I needed to speak up. If something was wrong that I had the courage to say,

"Hey, wait. That's wrong."

To not accept that homophobic joke anymore. To not accept that black joke… It gave me the power to speak up and do what I needed to do to try and make it a little bit better place. It made me stronger as a person.