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WAR WITH IRAQ

LAPD Probes Protest Claims

Official says incidents of alleged misconduct at antiwar rallies are under investigation.

March 27, 2003|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles police officials said Wednesday they are investigating five incidents in which officers were accused of using excessive force or inappropriate behavior to control antiwar protests around the city during the last week.

Cmdr. Paul M. Kim, assistant commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department's West Bureau, told the City Council that the department is looking into two cases in which protesters said officers used their batons excessively, along with one allegation that officers pushed demonstrators. Two other incidents involve charges that officers made inappropriate comments to protesters.

But Kim defended the LAPD's handling of demonstrations, saying that police worked with organizers to help them march in an orderly fashion. The department set up a semi-permanent command post at Wilshire Boulevard and Veteran Avenue, the site of many protests because of its proximity to the federal building, to improve communication with protesters, he said.

"We have good officers," Kim said, adding that all have received training in how to deal with demonstrations.

"I'm not going to stand here and say we have perfect human beings

He said all the complaints will be thoroughly investigated. He declined to provide details about the officers under investigation, citing the confidentiality of the process.

More than 10,000 protesters have participated in at least 22 demonstrations around L.A. since March 19, according to officials. About 150 were arrested and charged with misdemeanors, most for failing to disperse or disobeying a police officer's order. One demonstrator was charged with a felony for assault, Kim said. Two officers received minor injuries during the protests.

Some city officials have complained that the antiwar protests have diverted police resources, especially at a time of heightened security alerts.

"The worst part about it is on some of those days we had to go to tactical alert, which means that non-priority radio calls to the LAPD kind of have to be put on hold, because the police officers have to be available to deal with these demonstrations," Mayor James K. Hahn said Wednesday on KFWB's "Meet the Mayor" program. "It really hurts the service that we want to provide to everyone in L.A."

Hahn said the Police Department dealt with the demonstrations appropriately.

"We do encourage people to enjoy the 1st Amendment freedoms that this country provides to everybody, but if they go and break the law, if they try to block traffic, they are going to be arrested and they are going to be prosecuted," he said.

Deputy Mayor Matt Middlebrook said the city will aggressively investigate complaints of excessive behavior by police officers.

During Wednesday's council meeting, some members quizzed police officials about the tactics used, saying they are concerned that the city could be subject to lawsuits for misuse of force.

Councilman Eric Garcetti told Kim that he has received several calls from concerned protesters, including a woman who was carrying a baby at a demonstration and said an officer swung a baton dangerously close to the infant's head. A group of elderly women said they were unable to disperse, as ordered by police, because they were surrounded by officers, he said.

"I think the LAPD has come a long way in training its officers and dealing with crowd situations," he said. "That said, whenever there might be an overzealous officer or two or three, it has to be addressed very carefully before we end up a year or two later paying out taxpayer money."

Councilman Nate Holden showed footage of a March 19 demonstration in Westwood filmed by KCAL-TV Channel 9. On the video, a police officer can be seen hitting a man from behind with his baton, and then repeatedly striking a woman as she attempts to take his picture. The officer is eventually pulled away by a fellow officer.

When the footage aired on television that afternoon, Police Chief William J. Bratton ordered an immediate investigation.

"We expect people to have the right to exercise their 1st Amendment rights without being in fear of the city of Los Angeles' representatives abusing them," Holden said Wednesday.

"We just don't have enough money here, the taxpayers don't, to pay out money because some guy crossed the line using excessive force," he added.

Kim agreed to set up a meeting between police officials and some of the demonstrators to discuss the tactics used, and said he was hopeful it would help the police and protesters learn how to work together better.

"We are not the enemy, and they are not our enemy," he said. "They are part of the community which we are obligated to protect. We respect that."

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Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.

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