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Looking back 20 years later at L.A. riots

Posted at 6:05 PM, Apr 29, 2012
and last updated 2012-04-29 18:05:25-04

(CNN) It was 20-years-ago this Sunday that Los Angeles erupted in bloody riots sparked by the videotaped beating of a black motorist by four white police officers.

But as Casey Wyan reports (just click the video above), their subsequent acquittal of criminal charges for beating Rodney King ignited a six day riot that those involved will never forget.

Much of the “City of Angels” came to resemble hell, with structure fires, rampant looting, mob violence targeting innocent bystanders, heavily-armed Korean merchants, and the symbol of the African-American community's rage: police headquarters.

More than 50 people died during the riots. Estimated property damage tallied to a billion dollars.

Rosalina Nieves was nine-years old and lived just blocks from the epicenter: Florence and Normandie.

"It looked like a war zone. They were stopping cars and it looked like they were going into, what was then a Tom's Liquor Store and just looting and stealing things. I just remember being really scared and wondering if that was coming towards us,” said Nieves.

The current Los Angeles Police Department commander Andrew Smith was a street cop then.

"It was clear that we weren't taking control of the city and I think that message got out to everybody. They saw what was happening in these little small pockets and they just decided, "Hey it's a free-for-all in Los Angeles,” said Smith.

The LAPD, under then-Chief Darryl Gates, embraced its reputation for aggressively fighting drugs and gangs.

But in the 20 years since the riots, the LAPD has gone through many changes.

One of the most visible might be the brand new headquarters downtown but the the most significant is the alleged serious reform to the LAPD’s culture.

"We have to remember that it's not the LAPD as an occupying army going into a neighborhood and showing people how to do it and taking care of business and being the aggressive folks out there. We need to recognize that we have to work with people to solve the problems,” said Smith.

More than 10,000 National Guard troops, along with pleas from community leaders, finally ended the riots after six days.

At least a billion dollars was spent to rebuild the city.

Two of the four police officers on the beating tape were convicted of federal civil rights charges.

Rodney King later won a $3.8 million dollar settlement.