Along with the Boston Celtics fans scattered around the city, there's another contingent quietly dreading the idea of a Lakers victory Thursday night: the Los Angeles Police Department.
With a win, the Lakers clinch another NBA title. And that, police are all too aware, could set the stage for the looting and rioting by overzealous fans who have marred past celebrations. Police are less concerned about a Celtics victory. For whatever reason, they say, defeated fans at past sports events have shown far less interest in causing trouble.
LAPD officials have spent weeks planning the size and scope of the force of officers that will be deployed at game's end around Staples Center and other possible gathering spots in the city. Not wanting to give a leg up to any would-be troublemakers, police declined to divulge many details regarding the number of cops who will be on hand and where.
"Our presence will be very evident. Very," said LAPD Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck elaborated somewhat at an afternoon news conference Wednesday. Beck said "extraordinary measures will be in place," adding that the deployment would be "four or five times larger" than last year's response and include hundreds of patrol officers and specialized tactical units on foot, horse, bike and motorcycle.
Both urged fans without tickets to the game to stay away from Staples Center, indicating that police may restrict traffic entering the area after the game to prevent a surge of revelers mixing with the exodus from the game.
Police are not going into Thursday assuming there will be post-game trouble, Paysinger said. But they have only to look back to last year for a reminder of how things can get messy. Following the Lakers' championship game, the crowd outside Staples turned unruly, setting trashcans and trees on fire. Officers ordered the crowd to disperse, but groups of young men and women refused, stomping on car windshields, throwing rocks through windows and looting stores.
"We will let the demeanor of the crowd determine how we react," Paysinger said. "For the vast majority of the people, they are here to have a good time; and for us to pre-determine the night as anything else is not a good idea. However, if there is a group that demonstrates any type of lawlessness, we are fully prepared to deal with them quickly and completely. These kinds of situations have a contagious quality to them and we cannot let it go."
His comments underscored the delicate balance the LAPD must strike between allowing well-intentioned revelers the chance to celebrate and knowing when to disperse a crowd. Move too soon, and police can provoke an otherwise peaceful crowd. Wait too long, and things can spiral out of hand.
With television crews and other news media inundating the area, LAPD leaders are also keenly aware that their officers will be under intense scrutiny. If police move too aggressively, they risk doing damage to the positive public image the department has painstakingly rehabilitated since the 2007 May Day melee, when poorly organized cops botched an effort to clear protesters from a park using batons and firing rubber bullets. Dozens were injured, and support for the LAPD was undermined.
For the most part, the police earned praise for the restraint they demonstrated during their response to last year's Laker upheaval. If there are problems again this year, Paysinger said, officers are under strict orders to use physical force only as a last resort.
They'll have far more to contend with than they did last year. L.A. Live, the mega-shopping and entertainment complex next to Staples, is a new factor. And, along with the game, a large video-gaming conference will be wrapping up at the Convention Center next door and the opening night of the Los Angeles Film Festival will be underway across the street.
"This is such a high point for the city," Beck said. "Let's not turn it into a low point."