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To clear Occupy camp, LAPD uses new tactics

Police abandon classic strategies to design a crowd-control plan unique to L.A. site.

December 01, 2011|By Mitchell Landsberg, Joel Rubin and Kate Linthicum Los Angeles Times
  • Sanitation worker Gino Ramirez starts clearing the debris left behind by Occupy L.A. protesters, who had been evicted from their City Hall encampment by police. Within hours of the eviction, protest leaders were framing the action as a new beginning for the Occupy movement.
Sanitation worker Gino Ramirez starts clearing the debris left behind… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

When the end came, it came swiftly and with the shock of an overwhelming force.

Hundreds of police officers in riot gear swarmed out of Los Angeles City Hall early Wednesday, batons across their chests, surprising and engulfing the Occupy L.A. protesters who had been camped in the surrounding park for two months.

"Shame on you!" protesters shouted, as the officers ran to pre-assigned spots, instantly dividing the park into small, easily controlled segments. "Get back!" police shouted to those who came too close.

PHOTOS: Occupy Los Angeles

"We are peaceful!" protesters yelled.

The operation began at 12:13 a.m., on orders from Deputy Chief Jose Perez, watching from the steps of Los Angeles police headquarters across the street.

Two minutes later, it was effectively over.

Although police spent hours more arresting protesters and clearing the area, there was never a fight for control of the park. Police made sure that was not really a question. And although a few protesters threw rocks or otherwise resisted, most kept their cool and urged their compatriots to do the same.

Through a combination of effective tactics, daunting numbers and — significantly — restraint by both sides, police managed to bring the encampment to a largely peaceful end, avoiding the melees that marred the eviction of protesters from similar camps in Oakland, New York and elsewhere.

In the process, the LAPD took a major step toward shedding a reputation earned over decades for heavy-handed crowd control.

"The LAPD had their A game on," said Pam Noles, an Occupy protester and legal observer with the National Lawyers Guild. "I was really proud of the Occupiers who stood on message, stood on discipline and stood on faith," she added. "Both sides did what they had to do."

Both protesters and police knew the end of the camp was near. Both had planned for the inevitable confrontation for weeks.

Modeled after the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York, L.A.'s camp began Oct. 1, part of a loosely organized national movement that has decried the gap between rich and poor in America and the influence of corporate capitalism on the political system. Within a short time, hundreds of people were camped in the 1.7-acre park.

Protesters received a relatively warm welcome, with the City Council endorsing their action and council President Eric Garcetti inviting them to stay as long as they liked. But as days rolled into weeks and months, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other city leaders began showing signs of impatience with rising costs, petty crime and property damage. Ultimately, Villaraigosa, saying he feared for the safety of children at the camp, ordered the protesters to leave. They refused.

At LAPD headquarters, meetings to plan how to clear the camp began about three weeks ago.

Police Chief Charlie Beck, Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger and others were certain that traditional approaches wouldn't work.

The accepted wisdom of crowd control that police have adhered to for decades called for a long, single line of officers to sweep through the grounds and push out protesters. That tactic was used in a costly 2007 debacle clearing a protest at MacArthur Park.

Police officials shuddered at the thought of employing that technique on the sloped, tree-filled lawns of City Hall that were covered with scores of tents. And while it might push protesters out of the park, it would not have given police control over how they dispersed, the officials said.

"We knew we didn't want to just push them out," Beck said. "The last thing we wanted was to be chasing them through the streets."

Beck had dispatched officers to Oakland after police there clashed violently with protesters while trying to clear the city's Occupy camp. Oakland officers told their LAPD counterparts that trouble had started in part because protesters had been able to come together in a large group that emboldened them.

L.A. police wanted a plan that would divide and isolate protesters. The park seemed to lend itself to such an idea, with broad brick pathways that broke the lawn into sections.

Lt. Joseph McWilliams of the elite Metropolitan Division oversaw a team of officers tasked with drawing up a plan. Paysinger called McWilliams "one of the brightest tacticians we have." The rough outline for the plan came together in days. On Monday last week, Metro officers briefed Paysinger, giving him a Power Point presentation on how it would play out.

"When I saw the architecture of what they had come up with, I knew it was one of the best tactically designed ideas I had seen in decades, and that's not overstating it," Paysinger said. "It was totally different and much more precise" than anything the LAPD had ever tried before, he added.

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