THE IMAGES Tuesday of police firing projectiles at people trying to flee a mostly peaceful rally at MacArthur Park are glaringly out of place in the Los Angeles of 2007. At least, they were supposed to be out of place. The city has too much experience with police clashes and too painstaking a process of outrage, investigation, reform and trust-building to excuse this week's scenes of officers assaulting people -- including families with young children -- who had gathered in the park pursuant to a lawfully issued permit.
Three probes are underway, as they should be, and there are still plenty of facts to gather, statements to investigate and video images to sift until it's clear exactly who gave what orders and whether they were properly followed. But it's not too early for outrage. If the police actions were completely within policy, then policy must change.
Police Chief William J. Bratton said it appeared that a dispersal order was issued to the crowd, in English only, from a helicopter hovering overhead, rather than from sound trucks on the scene. That's simply astounding. It seems ludicrous to have to point out that if police expect a crowd order in today's L.A. to be obeyed, they need to issue it in Spanish as well as English. That is only more true at a long-planned immigration rally. And from a helicopter? Expecting a dispersal order to be heard and understood over the sound of rotor blades, in the midst of a crowd, is absurd.
There may well have been cause for gun-wielding officers in riot gear to shoot nonlethal bullets at troublemakers who left the permitted area and began hurling bottles and other dangerous objects at them. But it's hard to see how it became appropriate for police to shoot at people trying to leave the scene. It's hard to see how it's proper policy to shoot at, push or baton reporters who are trying to document the events. It was hard for Bratton -- who expressed "grave concern" -- to see why it was appropriate for officers to fire 240 times while arresting none of their targets.
One result of the city's unfortunate heritage of police conflict is an unparalleled system of oversight and investigation. Bratton, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other city leaders are doing a good job at walking that fine line between withholding judgment until the facts are in and expressing concern about what is already known.
But their proper concern for fairness should not obscure what is obvious: The police conduct on view in McArthur Park was inexcusable; those responsible, either for misguided policies or excessive force, should be punished.