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CAMPAIGN 2000

LAPD's Response to Protests Shows Its Strength and, Critics Say, Its Faults

August 16, 2000|BETH SHUSTER and JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Los Angeles Police Department that is confronting demonstrators this week is bigger, better-equipped and technologically improved over the force that failed in the face of the 1992 riots.

It also is more resolute--or, in the view of its critics, more reckless.

For the first time, the LAPD's top commanders are using live video feeds from the LAPD's helicopters, as well as cameras positioned on downtown rooftops, to make "real-time" decisions. They have command posts at several locations downtown and have stationed scores of officers--and even the department's mounted unit--in locations close to Staples Center, where the convention is located. They have new, dedicated radio frequencies to improve internal communication, and they are using computers to more rapidly issue cars, weapons and hand-held radios to officers.

In 1992, the LAPD was slow to respond to initial outbreaks of violence after a Ventura County jury returned not-guilty verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating case. The department's early uncertainty was compounded by a series of technological failings--from overloaded 911 lines to cell phones that failed to a communication breakdown that left the Police Department's helicopter over one riot area unable to relay updates to officers waiting to deploy.

"We were just a different department then," said Deputy Chief Martin Pomeroy, who is the LAPD's "incident commander" for the convention. "We're not that department anymore."

In one sense, however, the LAPD in recent days has resembled the one that attracted such criticism in the early 1990s. After years of adopting a more community-friendly face, the LAPD this week has projected a far more militaristic image--lights and sirens blaring, officers in helmets, firing many rounds into crowds--though of a less lethal variety.

Confronted with that old-style aggression, protest organizers, civil rights lawyers and others caught up in Monday night's melee said the police response was arbitrary and excessive.

"The LAPD has not merely failed to protect demonstrators' right to free speech, it has run roughshod over them," said Daniel Tokaji, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California in a letter to the city attorney.

LAPD officials disagree, saying they did what was necessary to end a violent situation.

While the department's new technology gives it a profound advantage over the LAPD that struggled in 1992, Los Angeles police at street level still must deal with the reality of confrontation.

Even with live video feeds being provided by helicopters, officers on the ground remain vulnerable to confusion, miscommunication and differing perceptions. Those issues are exaggerated in the heat of conflict and by other factors, including darkness and weather.

Shows of Strength

The LAPD's focus on demonstrators has captured most of the attention, but the department is spread throughout the city, advertising its strength or bravado not only to those near the convention but to the rest of the area as well.

Police, mostly four to a car, periodically race through downtown, lights and sirens blaring, even when there are no serious demonstrations underway. Officers in black ballistic helmets break into runs to move from place to place, signaling to some their apparent seriousness, to others their aggression. Hotel lobbies in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Pasadena, Beverly Hills and elsewhere teem with police--some from the LAPD, some belonging to neighboring cities.

In mid-Wilshire, Hollywood, South-Central and on the Eastside, noticeably beefed-up patrols have projected the LAPD's all-out effort to maintain public order this week.

The LAPD is being assisted by the California Highway Patrol, which has about 3,000 officers in Los Angeles this week. The CHP, which has jurisdiction over the freeways, is guarding freeway ramps and protecting overpasses, particularly in response to demonstrators' threats to hang banners. As they hold their positions at those intersections, CHP officers have attracted particular notice for the large red letters on their cars' windows. Those letters signify their specific areas of duty.

LAPD Cmdr. Dave Kalish said the high-profile tactics of recent days have two goals: to deter demonstrators and to offer a "calming effect" on city residents and visitors.

Despite all that, police still are forced to confront occasional flare-ups. By far, the most serious of those occurred Monday night.

After a relatively peaceful concert by Rage Against the Machine on Monday evening, some demonstrators wearing masks hurled bottles, chunks of concrete and metal signs at officers standing behind a fence at the designated protest area across the street from Staples Center.

Faced with that confrontation, police turned to their newly acquired equipment and training. Rather than engage demonstrators physically, police stayed behind a fence and sprayed protesters using fire extinguisher-sized cans of pepper spray.

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