LAPD Deploys More Officers for the Finals

TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Antoun is a devoted Laker fan who runs Downtown Motors, a Mercedes dealership just down the street from Staples Center. He was on a business trip in Hawaii during last season's NBA Finals, yet didn't miss a moment of the action on TV.

He watched Shaquille O'Neal. He watched Kobe Bryant. He watched hooligans smash the windows of his luxury cars and treat the hoods like trampolines.

"I was so happy when they won it, then so sad after that," said Antoun, who spotted his business during a broadcast of the post-victory melee, then hurried to catch the next plane home. "It was a bunch of drunk, emotional people on a rampage."

Dozens of young men burned two LAPD patrol cars, damaged at least 74 other vehicles at nearby auto dealerships, tore branches from trees, hurled road-construction barriers through store windows and set fire to trash cans.

The LAPD is determined to avert an encore.

"Rest assured, we are going to provide an environment where people can celebrate," said Lt. Horace Frank, an LAPD spokesman. "But we are not going to tolerate any law breakers. There will be swift action against people who are breaking the law."

Capt. Stuart Maislin, commanding officer of the central community police station, said more officers will be deployed in the downtown area for the Finals, although he declined to say how many. He said they will be on the alert to issue citations and make arrests, as they were for last year's Laker parade and Democratic National Convention. Both those events went off without a hitch.

"We, the department as a whole, have really looked at what went wrong last year," he said. "Because certainly mistakes were made. . . . Our presence is going to be very obvious to anyone in the area."

Hours before Wednesday's Game 1, a police van was parked in front of the 11th Street entrance to Staples Center, and two officers were citing drivers for such violations as not having front license plates or not wearing their seat belts.

"The people get pretty mad," officer Juan Moreno said. "They think it's petty. But, hey, it's against the law."

Officers also will be on the lookout for jaywalkers, tailgate partyers or anyone in possession of open containers of alcohol.

Even if the Lakers win the series on the road, police will be at the ready. The games played in Philadelphia will be broadcast inside Staples Center for those fans who want to watch them en masse.

Staples Center officials are doing their part to avoid a similar disturbance. Unlike last year, the games will not be simulcast on the jumbo video screens outside the arena or on any TVs visible from the street. Those won't even feature score updates. The TVs visible from the street will only broadcast promotions of upcoming events and public-service announcements.

It was the video screen at the north end of the building that attracted thousands of spectators for the decisive Game 6 last year. People filled 11th Street, which was blocked off to traffic, and cheered every Laker basket.

Some of the spectators brought beach chairs. Others spread blankets. The alcohol flowed.

Behind the crowd were officers on foot and horseback who surveyed the scene but didn't interfere.

After the game, most of the people left. But dozens stayed and participated in a spree of vandalism that caused $500,000 to $750,000 in damage.

Cleanup crews who normally patrol the streets and scrub graffiti off walls used their pressure washers to douse dumpster fires.

"They were heroes," said Kent Smith, executive director of the Fashion District of Los Angeles. "They thought very quickly and acted."

The police were criticized by some people for not doing more to stop the vandalism. But, according to a document obtained by The Times, the LAPD outlined a "victory operation plan" two weeks earlier in case of just such a disturbance. Officers were instructed to "minimize enforcement action" after establishing contact with the crowd and attempting to persuade demonstrators to follow police orders.

For the most part, officers had to stand by and watch the unruly mob. They made only 11 arrests. About a dozen people were injured, none of them seriously.

Mayor Richard Riordan, Police Chief Bernard C. Parks and City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg were among several city officials who praised the officers for their low-key response.

Parks said the officers accomplished their major goal: ensuring that no one was killed or seriously injured.

But others, including Ted Hunt, president of the police union, said officers were held back too much by commanders in the field.

"There should have been a stronger response," Hunt said last June. "The plan's first priority was to maintain order, because without that, anything can happen. You saw the television footage. Did they maintain order? Ask the auto dealers about that."

Even though the crowd was far larger for the victory parade, the LAPD had no problem handling the situation. The event went smoothly and lessened the sting of the disturbance fewer than 48 hours earlier.

"Everything was fine for that parade," Antoun said. "It was very civil. I'm confident the police will do the same for after the games this year. I feel very safe."

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