((((They had plenty of time to moblize, but push comes to shove if the protests occured unexpectedlly. They be running around circles with themselves.))))
By BETH SHUSTER and JIM NEWTON, Times Staff Writers
The Los Angeles Police Department that is confronting demonstrators this week is bigger, better-equipped and technologically improved over the force that failed in the GRAPHIC
LAPD's Eyes in the Sky
face of the 1992 riots.
It also is more resolute--or, in the view of its critics, more reckless.
For the first time, the LAPD's top commanders are using live video feeds from the LAPD's helicopters, as well as cameras positioned on downtown rooftops, to make "real-time" decisions. They have command posts at several locations downtown and have stationed scores of officers--and even the department's mounted unit--in locations close to Staples Center, where the convention is located. They have new, dedicated radio frequencies to improve internal communication, and they are using computers to more rapidly issue cars, weapons and hand-held radios to officers.
In 1992, the LAPD was slow to respond to initial outbreaks of violence after a Ventura County jury returned not-guilty verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating case. The department's early uncertainty was compounded by a series of technological failings--from overloaded 911 lines to cell phones that failed to a communication breakdown that left the Police Department's helicopter over one riot area unable to relay updates to officers waiting to deploy.
"We were just a different department then," said Deputy Chief Martin Pomeroy, who is the LAPD's "incident commander" for the convention. "We're not that department anymore."
In one sense, however, the LAPD in recent days has resembled the one that attracted such criticism in the early 1990s. After years of adopting a more community-friendly face, the LAPD this week has projected a far more militaristic image--lights and sirens blaring, officers in helmets, firing many rounds into crowds--though of a less lethal variety.
Confronted with that old-style aggression, protest organizers, civil rights lawyers and others caught up in Monday night's melee said the police response was arbitrary and excessive.
"The LAPD has not merely failed to protect demonstrators' right to free speech, it has run roughshod over them," said Daniel Tokaji, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California in a letter to the city attorney.
LAPD officials disagree, saying they did what was necessary to end a violent situation.
While the department's new technology gives it a profound advantage over the LAPD that struggled in 1992, Los Angeles police at street level still must deal with the reality of confrontation.
Even with live video feeds being provided by helicopters, officers on the ground remain vulnerable to confusion, miscommunication and differing perceptions. Those issues are exaggerated in the heat of conflict and by other factors, including darkness and weather.
Shows of Strength
The LAPD's focus on demonstrators has captured most of the attention, but the department is spread throughout the city, advertising its strength or bravado not only to those near the convention but to the rest of the area as well.
Police, mostly four to a car, periodically race through downtown, lights and sirens blaring, even when there are no serious demonstrations underway. Officers in black ballistic helmets break into runs to move from place to place, signaling to some their apparent seriousness, to others their aggression. Hotel lobbies in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Pasadena, Beverly Hills and elsewhere teem with police--some from the LAPD, some belonging to neighboring cities.
In mid-Wilshire, Hollywood, South-Central and on the Eastside, noticeably beefed-up patrols have projected the LAPD's all-out effort to maintain public order this week.
The LAPD is being assisted by the California Highway Patrol, which has about 3,000 officers in Los Angeles this week. The CHP, which has jurisdiction over the freeways, is guarding freeway ramps and protecting overpasses, particularly in response to demonstrators' threats to hang banners. As they hold their positions at those intersections, CHP officers have attracted particular notice for the large red letters on their cars' windows. Those letters signify their specific areas of duty.
LAPD Cmdr. Dave Kalish said the high-profile tactics of recent days have two goals: to deter demonstrators and to offer a "calming effect" on city residents and visitors.
Despite all that, police still are forced to confront occasional flare-ups. By far, the most serious of those occurred Monday night.
After a relatively peaceful concert by Rage Against the Machine on Monday evening, some demonstrators wearing masks hurled bottles, chunks of concrete and metal signs at officers standing behind a fence at the designated protest area across the street from Staples Center.
Faced with that confrontation, police turned to their newly acquired equipment and training. Rather than engage demonstrators physically, police stayed behind a fence and sprayed protesters using fire extinguisher-sized cans of pepper spray.
In all, just six people were arrested, five for allegedly failing to disperse and one for allegedly assaulting a police officer. Numerous others were hit with stinger rounds--small, marble-sized pellets--beanbag projectiles and hard rubber batons.
Some of the victims of that action were stunned by its ferocity, particularly because only a small number of protesters caused trouble but many more were swept up in the LAPD's response.
"I don't get it. . . . I thought it was mellow," said Bradley Martin, 21, a student from Chicago visiting a friend here. "Then, it was like, everyone just started running and falling, and people were yelling, 'Don't run!' I didn't think it would be like this."
The LAPD's top two officials, Police Chief Bernard C. Parks and Pomeroy, and the commander overseeing the department's convention planning unit, not only defended the department's handling of Monday's unrest, they also pronounced it model police work.
Parks called the police response "very, very organized" and added that "the strategy was right." Pomeroy called it "textbook." And Cmdr. Tom Lorenzen, head of the LAPD's convention planning unit, said the department is responding in an uncharacteristically unified voice. "We are of a singular mind-set," he said.
"What would you do, call in the Girl Scouts?" Lorenzen said. "We had a 360-degree problem. It was like elementary-school science where you see that amoeba moving."
The LAPD says it has planned for this event in ways that it hasn't before. A 6-inch-thick security plan has been written, including numerous scenarios and options for the Police Department. This includes calling for assistance from outside law enforcement agencies, but LAPD officials doubt they will need that help.
"We have a huge script here that we're going to stick to," Lorenzen said.
Still, sometimes the issues are not easily planned for.
Despite the new technology and additional officers at the LAPD's disposal, some of the most controversial decisions Monday night depended on old-fashioned communication.
For example, protesters said they had tried to shut down the concert themselves and were preparing to make an announcement asking the crowd to leave peacefully. But police recounted a different version of that conversation, saying they understand that the protest organizers had lost control of the event, leaving the police with the responsibility to clear the area.
Protesters also complained that many tried to leave the area as ordered but were stymied by the LAPD's security barriers, which they said choked off their exit. Pomeroy disagreed.
"There was no choke point," he said. "It's not like there's a turnstile there. . . . Once we moved in, people cleared out in a hurry."
Others, including organizers of the Democratic convention and some city officials, agreed, rejecting the claims of protesters and others that the force used to disperse the crowd was excessive. But City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who has criticized the LAPD's planning for the event, said she believed police overreacted Monday.
LAPD Defends Actions
Under the LAPD's rules for handling crowds, officers are allowed to use "reasonable physical force necessary to accomplish an arrest or dispersal."
Officers make their own decisions on whether to use their weapons, and department officials defended the use of the beanbag projectiles and stinger rounds, among other less lethal weapons.
With so many other agencies also involved, the LAPD has based its operations at a "unified command center" located in a nondescript office building, where at least two dozen agencies have representatives on the same floor as the LAPD. In a command post near Staples Center, the Fire Department works side by side with the LAPD as they view three televisions with live video feeds from the area. Aerial maps and photographs line the walls. Radios are constantly dispatching updated information from the streets to commanders. Two command posts receive constant feeds from the Secret Service's logs, among other informational sources.
Even a representative from Motorola, which makes the department's radios, works out of one site to provide immediate communications assistance.
Additionally, the department has a mobile field jail with streamlined paperwork, enabling officers to write quicker arrest reports. Representatives from the district attorney's and city attorney's offices also are on hand to more swiftly process arrests and charges. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which runs the county's jails, will handle all mass arrests, which authorities regard as 25 or more.
In addition to outside help, the LAPD itself fields a far larger force than it did in 1992. Now up to about 9,400 officers, the LAPD is requiring officers to work on 12-hour shifts this week. Over the past couple days, the department has used 2,000 officers over a 24-hour period. On Monday night, in fact, the department held over the day shift, which worked in conjunction with officers coming in for the night shift.
Even the LAPD's horses are under new management. A virtual stable has been set up in one area not far from Staples Center, where the department's 30 horses have barns and a corral in which to exercise.
LAPD commanders are under no illusions that the week's challenges are over.
"Last night was only a portion of [our] script," Lorenzen said. "We're not going to rest on our laurels, we're ready to go again."