Los Angeles police officers walk by Occupy L.A. last month. Some civil rights… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)
When the tents started spreading out across the City Hall lawn seven weeks ago, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck quickly realized that the Occupy L.A. protest could become a defining moment for his department.
Beck immediately made it his business to know what was going on inside the loosely organized movement. He talked frequently to several protest leaders on the telephone and kept in close contact with civil rights lawyers who were advising the demonstrators. His officers made a point of talking up protesters on the ground — and trying to ignore the smell of marijuana that wafted through the camp. On Thanksgiving Day, two LAPD commanders delivered turkeys to demonstrators.
The charm offensive was all leading up to Monday morning, when the LAPD may begin clearing out the camp.
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As police in New York and Oakland and at UC Davis and UC Berkeley have come under criticism for what some consider heavy-handed treatment of Occupy protesters, Beck said he's determined for things to go more smoothly in Los Angeles. But he admits he's not sure they will.
"I have no illusions that everybody is going to leave," Beck said. "We anticipate that we will have to make arrests.... We certainly will not be the first ones to apply force."
The stakes for Beck and his department are high.
The LAPD has a checkered record in dealing with protests. Clashes between officers and demonstrators at the 2000 Democratic National Convention brought a string of lawsuits and a series of reforms in how the department handles crowd control.
The city has paid out more than $12 million in civil settlements since officers used batons and fired foam bullets to disperse the crowd at a MacArthur Park rally for immigrant rights on May Day 2007. The incident, caught on video and broadcast around the world, was a black eye for the department and prompted another reform campaign.
Beck was appointed chief two years ago with the enthusiastic recommendations of civil rights groups and community activists, who said he brought a new way of thinking about defusing community tensions. Beck had worked with these groups in the aftermath of the Rampart corruption scandal a decade ago, supporting a series of reforms.
He has applied some of the same principles in his handling of Occupy L.A. But while some civil rights activists have praised LAPD restraint so far, some question why the department is forcing a showdown that could turn ugly.
Police "have been restrained up until now, but it's not over," said civil rights attorney Carol Sobel. The deadline, she said, "made people dig in their heels. There were discussions taking place. There was no reason not to let it play out further and see what the city could do."
The chief has talked on and off with some protesters over the last few weeks, hoping they might agree to voluntarily vacate the lawn, and officials from the Police Department and the mayor's office have met regularly with protesters. At one point, the city even offered the protesters a package of incentives that included downtown office space and land for gardening if they left. But on Friday, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced that it was time for the encampment to end — and set a deadline of 12:01 a.m. Monday.
It's a different tactic from the one used by New York police against Occupy Wall Street protesters earlier this month. There, officials kept the details of the eviction top secret and were later criticized for trying to keep the media away from the raid.
Beck said he believes being open is the best approach. But it does have risks.
By announcing when the crackdown will begin, the department risks confrontations by die-hard activists or provocateurs drawn to the site. Indeed, LAPD sources said they are worried less about the Occupy campers than about outsiders who might come to City Hall seeking conflict.
Among protesters, many believe the LAPD has been more cordial than police in other cities.
At some points, police have seemed to be almost overly cautious. Officers moved slowly to make arrests when a group of two dozen activists sat down with arms linked on Figueroa Street two weeks ago during a march organized by labor unions and community groups in conjunction with Occupy L.A. While an official LAPD videographer filmed the carefully choreographed arrests, several public relations officers stood by, ready to answer questions from the dozens of journalists who were watching.
Protester Ryan Rice, who was arrested in another protest later that day, said Los Angeles police were much less aggressive than those he encountered while being arrested during the Oakland police raid on the Occupy encampment there last month. He feels he was treated with "kid gloves" by Los Angeles police, something he credits not to progressive thinking among officers "but a political leash that's holding them back."