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LAPD cut back forces at park rally

Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles Police Department removed dozens of elite officers from immigration protest duty in the hours before a violent clash with marchers and reporters, sources said Thursday, raising new questions about how commanders handled the incident.

The disclosure came as the FBI opened an inquiry Thursday into the clash that left 10 people injured.

For the record:
12:00 AM, May. 10, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 10, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
May Day rally: An article in Friday’s Section A about the Los Angeles Police Department removing dozens of elite officers from immigration protest duty hours before a clash in MacArthur Park said the violence left 10 people injured. The known number at that point was 17, including seven officers.

Police Chief William J. Bratton escalated his criticism of the officers’ tactics and said the department’s three investigations would focus on the actions not only of line officers but also of the top brass who gave the orders.

“There were mistakes made here all the way up and down the line. I want to make that clear,” Bratton said. “Was there lack of supervision? Was there lack of leadership? What were [the line officers] directed to do?”

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Bratton and other LAPD officials declined to discuss the deployment plan or other specific details of the investigation.

But the disclosure of the shift provides more details of how commanders managed the protest and suggests that police might have been caught off guard by its scope.

Three platoons of the highly trained Metro Division, which were originally set to be at MacArthur Park for the end of the immigration march and rally, instead were sent home or to other assignments, including one in South Los Angeles, according to sources familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it involves ongoing investigations. (The size of a platoon varies, but sources estimated that the total number of officers moved were 50 to 80.)

The redeployments occurred shortly before a group of agitators began throwing bottles and other debris at the remaining officers. As crowds grew and tensions rose, officers came under attack, sources said, and commanders scrambled to get some of the departed officers back.

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Some arrived just as the confrontation began. The sources said it was not clear why commanders ordered the platoons to depart.

Bob Baker, president of the L.A. Police Protective League, said his organization had heard from its members about the redeployment and said some officers thought not enough officers were at the scene.

“Why would you take away assets when you know what happened at that location a year before?” Baker said, referring to similar disturbances that occurred at the end of the 2006 May Day rally at the park.

Even with the reduced staffing, several hundred LAPD officers -- including many not in the Metro unit -- were in the vicinity when commanders decided to clear the area. It is not clear whether extra officers might have changed the outcome.

LAPD officers fired at least 240 rounds of foam, sponge or fiber projectiles as they swept through the park about 6:15 p.m. The move came after police had clashed with a small group of protesters near the intersection of 7th and Alvarado streets.

Sources have said that neither the top commander nor captain was on the skirmish line as officers confronted the crowd. Bratton also said the LAPD’s order to scatter, which was made from a police helicopter, in English, was inadequate.

On Thursday, Bratton offered a more detailed and pointed critique of the police actions, particularly those involving Telemundo anchor Pedro Sevcec, who was broadcasting from under a canopy. He was pushed to the ground while on live television as police shoved through.

“Here you have a tent clearly [for the] news media,” Bratton said. The anchor “wears a suit and tie and there is clearly cameras ... and the knocking over of cameras in the tent -- that behavior is not under any circumstances justified.”

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He also said he was troubled by reports that police used force on women and children who had gone to the park to play.

“The idea that officers would be firing -- some of these devices send out five or six projectiles with one shot -- that is a concern,” Bratton said.

Andre Birotte, the LAPD’s inspector general, said part of his investigation would focus on whether there were adequate resources and training for the officers involved.

“Were there sufficient planning and resources detailed and dedicated to this event, and was LAPD’s response appropriate to the actions of the crowd?” Birotte said. “If they thought they were undermanned, it could play a role in why they used the force they used. We are going to look at that issue.”

The FBI said in a statement that its “preliminary inquiry” will examine “whether the civil rights of protesters taking part in the May 1st immigration rally were violated.”

The FBI has opened similar probes after other recent high-profile LAPD incidents, including the fatal shooting in 2005 of a 13-year-old.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, speaking to reporters in Mexico City during a stop on his nine-day trade mission, said he would welcome the FBI’s role in the investigation of Tuesday’s violence. Late Thursday, the mayor said he was cutting short his trade mission and would return to Los Angeles today to deal with the May Day issue.

Mexico’s consul general in Los Angeles, Ruben Beltran, said in Mexico City that he trusted Bratton to deal with the issue in an honest and candid way.

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Beltran, who witnessed the melee in the park, said Bratton called him Wednesday in Mexico to say that the Police Department would reach out to the immigrant community and take its investigation seriously.

*

richard.winton@latimes.com

matt.lait@latimes.com

Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein, Patrick McGreevy and Duke Helfand in Mexico City contributed to this report.


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