LAPD revamps tactics for May Day
By Thomas Watkins
LOS ANGELES — It was a nightmare for the thousands of immigrants who turned out on May Day to demand better rights but found a phalanx of police officers who pummeled many with batons and opened fire with rubber bullets.
The Los Angeles Police Department has spent the past year trying to undo the damage done during those few minutes at MacArthur Park.
On Thursday, it will deploy the sweeping changes it has made in its tactics and technology, as officers try to keep the peace at another demonstration expected to draw at least 50,000 protesters to downtown streets.
"There were significant points of failure," said Deputy Chief Michael Hillmann, who has spent much of the past year looking at what went wrong last year. "It wasn't one singular item, it was a whole series of things."
Hillmann co-wrote a report that recommended significant changes in the way the LAPD deals with crowds. Most significantly, every LAPD officer — even those working desk jobs — has undergone training in the past year aimed at relearning the basics of crowd control.
For many officers, it was their first such training in years.
"We had done a very lousy job, quite frankly," said Cmdr. Sandy Jo MacArthur, who wrote the report with Hillmann after officers were captured on videotape striking protesters and reporters at MacArthur Park.
The footage rekindled accusations of excessive force that have dogged the LAPD for decades.
In 1991, a report into the Rodney King beating found many LAPD "repetitively use excessive force against the public" and said the behavior was aggravated by racism and bias.
The treatment of protesters at the 2000 Democratic National Convention brought even more abuse claims.
Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for the city attorney, said 305 claims were filed after last year's melee alleging excessive force, civil rights violations and other mistreatment.
Of these, 21 were denied and have led to lawsuits. None of the claims or lawsuits have resulted in payouts, Mateljan said.
Twenty-two officers remain under investigation, though none have been disciplined so far, MacArthur said.
Juan Jose Gutierrez, president of Los Angeles-based Latino Movement USA, was pleased the LAPD had changed its procedures but felt the department could go further.
"They have highlighted new tactics and new technology, but they haven't said flat out we are going to be doing everything and anything we can to prevent a repeat of what happened last year," Gutierrez said. "That makes me wary."
Latino Movement USA is organizing one of two marches Thursday that will end near City Hall. One group of protesters will trek through downtown, while the other will start at MacArthur Park.
Gutierrez expects at least 50,000 people to participate, explaining that many people are angry about ongoing immigration raids.
Police officials hope improved communications can help prevent a replay of last year's problems, which were partially blamed on the failure of officers to give effective orders in either English or Spanish.
The LAPD now has an all-wheel-drive buggy that can flash commands in Spanish and English as it moves through crowds. During a recent demonstration, police Capt. Dennis Kato plugged a handheld device into a loudspeaker on the buggy, cueing an electronic voice warning that a demonstration was illegal and people had to leave.
"If you do not do so, you may be arrested or subject to other police action," the recording blared.
The so-called Phraselator can sound warnings in English, Spanish, Korean and Mandarin.
LAPD officers underwent crowd control training at an Army Reserve center, where they patrolled an abandoned housing area, learned to form skirmish lines and got instructions on using batons in a crowd.
Among other things, they were told not to jab people in the back since that could damage their spine. They were also schooled on forming extraction teams to identify and arrest violent demonstrators.
Hillmann's report found that officers at last year's protest let violent protesters remain in the crowd then declared the entire demonstration unlawful and cleared the area.
In one case, a man who pulled a motorcycle officer from his bike was not arrested.
Police this year intend to corral individual protesters who become violent but let the demonstration continue unless mass arrests are needed.
Some officers insist their response last year was needed.
"We had some radical people that came over to create problems," said Officer Jack Parker, who helped clear the park. "When you're on this side of it and you start taking rocks and bottles and you have to clear the area, that's exactly what we do."
Other officers faulted some in the crowd, including reporters, claiming they did not obey police orders to leave.
Subsequent reviews found a command meltdown, with conflicting orders being given to officers.
"It's what I call a fuzzy chain of command," Hillmann said.
This year, police Chief William Bratton and other officials made it a point to meet with organizers before the marches.
Bethany Leal, director of the Multi Ethnic Immigrant Workers Organizing Network, said the chief had come to several meetings to talk logistics and ease concerns.
"There's definitely fear" among immigrants, Leal said.
Bratton said this May Day will be different.
"We anticipate it will be a celebratory day, we do not anticipate any problems," he said.
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