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LAPD takes blame for park melee

The chief apologizes for flawed leadership during the May 1 rally. A new report says at least 26 are under investigation.

October 10, 2007|Richard Winton and Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writers

In a scathing self-critique, the LAPD on Tuesday blamed the May 1 MacArthur Park melee involving officers, immigration protesters and journalists on a series of fateful decisions by police commanders that escalated hostilities and resulted in a widespread breakdown in discipline and behavior by officers.

The findings, contained in a long-awaited report by top police officials, come as Police Chief William J. Bratton announced that at least 26 officers participating in the incident are under internal investigation and could face discipline for using excessive force.

The report is the latest effort by Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to quell widespread outcry over the incident, in which TV news footage showed officers swinging batons and firing less-than-lethal rounds at journalists as well as immigration rights protesters gathered at the park for an afternoon rally.

The melee left 246 journalists and protesters as well as 18 officers with injuries, and more than 250 legal claims have been filed against the city. Los Angeles County prosecutors and the FBI are continuing to investigate the case.

The report paints a disturbing picture of commanders who failed to adequately plan for the rally, refused to bring in more officers when tensions escalated, issued confusing and sometimes contradictory orders and failed to control officers. It found that officers repeatedly used their weapons in ways that violated LAPD policies and appeared not to follow basic training guidelines.

In the days after the melee, Bratton and other top officials criticized the general tactics of police at the park, but the report offered a level of unvarnished detail and a critical tone that even some LAPD critics described as highly unusual, if not unprecedented.

The review, presented to the Police Commission on Tuesday, was written by Deputy Chief Michael Hillmann and Police Administrator Gerald L. Chaleff.

Reaction to the document was mixed: Some police commissioners called it a blunt effort to get to the truth of what happened, but some civil rights groups criticized it for not delving deeper into the action of individual officers who used batons and less-than-lethal rounds on people.

Bratton on Tuesday repeatedly apologized for "significant senior management failures, myself on down." Bratton had left his office to attend an event at Universal Studios on the day of the melee and learned of the problems when Villaraigosa called him from Central America, where the mayor had gone for the start of a trade mission, according to the report.

"I, as chief of police, regret deeply that this occurred on my watch," Bratton told a City Hall news conference, where he was joined by Villaraigosa and other city leaders. "I accept full responsibility for it occurring on my watch."

Villaraigosa condemned the police response, saying the LAPD had an obligation to ensure the protesters' and reporters' freedom of speech.

"What happened was wrong," he said. "The inadequate planning, the breakdown in command and control, misuse of tactics created a cascading chain of escalating misjudgments."

The "cascade" began well before the May Day protest, the report found.

Deputy Chief Lee Carter, who was in charge of policing the rally and has since retired after being demoted, "underestimated the size and significance" of the event, even though a May Day gathering a year before drew hundreds of thousands of people.

When a Rampart-area captain suggested additional planning before the march, he was "verbally reprimanded" by Carter, the report said. Additionally, the officers who ultimately confronted the protesters -- including those from the elite Metropolitan Division -- played no role in the planning phase.

Three hours before the march turned violent, Carter, Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger and Deputy Chief Richard Roupoli decided to reduce the police presence at the park. The commanders released three of four platoons that had been ordered to stand by.

As the crowds grew that afternoon, Carter and the other commanders did not take advantage of the more than 450 officers available to handle the crowds at the park, relying instead on a smaller group of Metro officers who easily became overwhelmed. But even the 450 officers were about half what several local police captains had told superiors were needed to handle the crowds.

As chaos ensued in the park, officers and their commanders grew confused over who was in charge. Rampart-area Capt. John Egan had been designated as LAPD's point person at the park. But Carter and Cmdr. Louis Gray began to make decisions and give orders.

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