From the Classroom

Profiles from a Polarized America: ‘Everything was on fire’

Ex-LAPD officer reflects on ‘92 riots

When she was eight years old, Christine Ferris told her mother that she wanted to be a police officer when she grew up. That came true in 1989, the year she enrolled in the Los Angeles Police Academy. She never imagined just three years later she would be in uniform protecting City Hall, with shots firing around her and downtown Los Angeles in flames.

The 1992 riots began in South Central L.A. after a jury acquitted four white LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney King, which had been videotaped and spread widely. Public outrage ensued as thousands of people took to the streets in protest, which quickly turned violent.

As one of the officers called in to contain the riots, Ferris could not believe what she witnessed, calling it “the war of the worlds.” She did not understand how people could be so angry they would burn down their own city.

Ferris, now 52, has worked in law enforcement since she graduated from the Police Academy 30 years ago, though she no longer is an active officer and left the LAPD not long after the riots ended in 1992. She now works as an investigator for the state and lives with her two dachshunds, Lily and Dolores, in Santa Clarita.

Ferris grew up in the San Fernando Valley and has lived in California her entire life. Her father, who immigrated from Mexico before she was born, died of cancer when she was only two. She cites her father’s death as a reason for an extraordinarily close relationship with her mother.

“My mom was really strong and self-sufficient, independent, and made sure that I knew how to be the same,” Ferris said in an interview on a February afternoon in Los Angeles.

Growing up, her first exposure to politics was when her mother voiced her discontent with a Reagan administration policy that cut off the Social Security benefit they had been receiving from her father’s passing.

“That’s the only time I remember her having any political opinion and it wasn’t a good one,” Ferris said.

Even though she was set on a career path from the age of 8, Ferris considered going into law for a time, and was even accepted into UC Santa Barbara’s pre-law program. She decided at the last minute not to attend, and to stay close to her mother instead.

“I didn’t want to be away from her. We had been so close for so long, and even though it was two hours away, my mom didn’t push me,” Ferris said.

Her close relationship with her mother is mirrored in her own relationship with her daughter Sloane Martin, a 21-year-old senior at USC, who characterizes her mom as her friend.

“We’ve always been very, very close. There’s never been a single thing that we can’t talk about,” Martin said. “She’s always been a role model for me [on] how to live my life independently.”

When she first started, Ferris was one of few female officers in the LAPD, which had once only offered the titles of “policeman” and “policewoman.”

“I personally felt like I had to really prove myself more than any of the males,” Ferris said. “I felt like I was representing every female either in the department or whoever wanted to come on after me.”

Ferris often wears bright colors, which match her sunny demeanor. But in what seems to be a reaction to her experience working during the riots, she is steadily aware of her surroundings and is careful not to let her guard down. She always sits facing a door or an exit.

“She always has a heightened sense of awareness and always [feels] like she could be shot at any second,” Martin said. “She’s always ready for something to happen and I think in that way she just always experiences PTSD [at] a low level, whether she realizes it or not.”

When the 1992 riots first broke, Ferris and her partner were sent to protect City Hall and Parker Center, LAPD headquarters at the time.

“As soon as we got down [to Parker Center], they had firebombed it. And you could hear shots going off all around us, it was the first time I’d ever heard of a fireman getting shot,” Ferris said. “They shot him in the jaw and it was two blocks away from where we were.”

The riots felt at times personal to Ferris, as she represented what many were fighting against: the LAPD.

“We were the enemy,” she said. “We were in riot gear getting spit on, having stuff thrown at us… I felt like people didn’t really understand what happened.”

Ferris also felt her perspective as an officer was misunderstood.

“I felt like I had a different insight than people who have never been an officer,” Ferris said. “You would hope that officers would do what they feel is only necessary, whether or not they went overboard .... There’s a lot of interpretations when you see a video or hear stories. The video certainly indicated one thing, but I wasn’t there.”

To this day, Ferris cannot comprehend the level of hatred and anger she witnessed, particularly the attack on Reginald Denny, a white truck driver beaten by a group of black men.

“[Reginald Denny] sustained permanent brain damage because he was white and in the wrong place,” Ferris said. “And it was their response to, well, Rodney King was black and they felt that the white officers had beaten Rodney King unjustifiably, so it was a tit for tat type thing.”

While the riots lasted only six days (though some violence and looting continued in the aftermath), Ferris said it felt like forever. With the National Guard and other federal and state troops deployed to quell the situation, the mayor implemented a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

“That was eerie, ‘cause we worked 12-hour shifts and I worked the graveyard shift. I worked from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and to have nobody, no cars, no people, no nothing, not even a dog barked after the curfew went off so it felt like a long time,” she said.

Ferris has not witnessed anything like the riots in the 28 years since, and that experience has informed her perspective, and perhaps, her political views.

“I think it was probably really formative in her life, having that experience so young,” Martin said. “It shapes how she sees [things] like mass shootings or riots or stabbings, basically anything that’s against police.”

Ferris, who is not registered with a political party, feels strongly that everyone should be able to own a firearm. She lists the protection of gun laws, along with reproductive and animal rights, as her top three political issues.

“If somebody wants a gun, they’re going to get a gun –– guns are stolen, guns are on the black market, they’re brought in from other states, other countries,” Ferris said.

She also said she understands there is a lot of responsibility to carry and own a weapon and suggests citizens be trained as law enforcement officers to learn how and when to use a gun.

“Officers go to such a high level of training that citizens miss out on some important aspects of owning these weapons, when to use them, how to use them, things to watch out for, that they don’t think of because they’re most likely never going to be in that type of situation,” Ferris said. “But I think everybody should be allowed to own a gun, absolutely.”

This story was reported and written through a journalism course on politics and government affairs reporting, and edited by USC Annenberg Professor Christina Bellantoni. Annenberg Media student editors reviewed the story and published it per newsroom guidelines.

Annenberg Media is a student-led multiplatform news media overseen and funded by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Many of the journalists are working weekly shifts in its newsroom, known as the Media Center, to fulfill curricular requirements. Annenberg Media is independent of the university administration. Please direct news tips and press releases to

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