Police Training Credited With Keeping Possible Strike Violence to a Minimum

Times Staff Writer

Slowly, one by one, the trucks edged into the Lucky distribution center in Irvine as angry Teamsters Union members cursed and spat at the "scabs" driving the rigs. Between them stood police officers forming a wedge to push the pickets back and allow the trucks in.

The situation last week was tense on the supermarket picket lines. Officers, from time to time, moved in to push the strikers back and then slowly retreated to their station 50 yards up the street, while pickets continued to taunt the independent truck drivers and police.

Yet even though the tension grew, a full-fledged confrontation never developed. Police arrested a few pickets for minor incidents of vandalism, public drunkenness and simple assault. No serious injuries were reported.

For the Irvine Police Department, which is not typically called upon to handle mass civil disturbances, the calming of the volatile situation at the warehouse during the first few days of the supermarket strike was not accidental. Scores of officers had been drilled to anticipate such a situation for three weeks before the strike actually began nine days ago.

Lt. Robert Leonard, who headed the deployment plan for the strike, said the department was well prepared for the strike and had worked on several contingency plans before the management of Lucky Discount Supermarkets locked out about 1,100 union warehousemen last week.

"We got word three weeks before that the strike might happen. As a result of that, we began preparations," Leonard said in an interview Wednesday.

One of the plans, prepared in the event that "all hell broke loose," would have placed all police officers on 12-hour shifts and canceled all vacations, he said.

Intense Training

The week before the strike began, Leonard drilled his officers on "nothing but civil violence training and labor relations training" to cover any "volatile" situation that might arise on the picket line, he said. The officers also were prepared for "reinforcement of the psychological effects" that they would experience during heated moments before an angry crowd.

The preparations paid off, since only 20 people were arrested, most for minor violations, and the 50 police officers who controlled the picket line the first week of the strike were never in trouble.

"In any situation that may be volatile, we can't just come in and overreact," Leonard said. "The strike is not our business, but our main purpose is to keep peace and protect life and property. We had a minimal amount of people hurt."

He also said that training given to Irvine police officers would have not differed greatly if the city had been confronted with a natural disaster such as a flood or a major airplane crash.

Violence Quotient Unknown

"If you plan ahead, (a strike) is not any harder. It's still a situation where there are panic and high emotions. The only thing that was unknown was how violent it would get if it did get violent," Leonard said.

Although the strike by the Teamsters and the meat cutters unions has been relatively free of major violence, the most serious confrontations have occurred in Orange County. Several sniper incidents have been reported throughout the county and police also suspect that an incident in which 86 cars were vandalized in the parking lot of an Anaheim motel was related to the strike.

The most serious sniping incident occurred last week when an independent trucker driving through Tustin on the Santa Ana Freeway was hit by a pellet that broke his arm.

Elsewhere, other police departments have come up with different strategies to cope with possible strike violence.

In Anaheim, the Police Department has its own labor relations detachment to deal with strike-related violence. But Sgt. Jack Parra, who heads the unit, said that aside from the isolated sniping incidents, "we have not had any real problems brought to our attention."

He said that communication with management and the striking unions is important to keep police officers aware of the feelings on both sides.

Serve as 'a Buffer'

"We serve as kind of a buffer for both of them. That is the major role we play," Parra said. "We try to observe and not try to bridge our neutrality. When we do that, then our effectiveness is minimized."

The Los Angeles Police Department, which has had a special labor relations division since 1969, has had fewer problems with strike violence than that experienced in Orange County. Sgt. Richard Shedd, one of the 15 veteran members of the unit, said communication with both sides of the labor dispute has helped police maintain relative peace.

He also said that since the supermarkets' large distribution centers are located in Orange County, the violence has centered here and not in Los Angeles County.

"This is a major strike with several thousand people out," Shedd said. "But we think it has been a little better than average regarding violence. Relatively speaking, we've had an absolute minimum of problems."

Preparation also paid off for the Buena Park Police Department, which had to quell disturbances at another Lucky warehouse in that city. In a week's time, police have arrested 19 persons for minor infractions.

Officer Terry Branum, a Police Department spokesman, said two 12-officer teams have alternated in 12-hour shifts to monitor the picketing at the warehouse. He said both management and unions leaders were assured that the police officers will not choose sides.

Police Role Explained

"We explained to both sides what our role is there . . . that is, to protect peace and property. If they violate the law on either side, we're going to take appropriate action," he said.

Although court injunctions prohibit more than five pickets per site and violent incidents have all but disappeared at the two warehouses, both the Irvine and Buena Park police departments have continued to patrol the two locations.

"We want to keep a high profile and let them (pickets) know that we're not going to tolerate any violence," Branum stressed.

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