LAPD takes blame for park melee

Times Staff Writers

In a scathing self-critique, the LAPD on Tuesday blamed the May 1 MacArthur Park melee involving officers, immigration protesters and journalists on a series of fateful decisions by police commanders that escalated hostilities and resulted in a widespread breakdown in discipline and behavior by officers.

The findings, contained in a long-awaited report by top police officials, come as Police Chief William J. Bratton announced that at least 26 officers participating in the incident are under internal investigation and could face discipline for using excessive force.

The report is the latest effort by Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to quell widespread outcry over the incident, in which TV news footage showed officers swinging batons and firing less-than-lethal rounds at journalists as well as immigration rights protesters gathered at the park for an afternoon rally.

The melee left 246 journalists and protesters as well as 18 officers with injuries, and more than 250 legal claims have been filed against the city. Los Angeles County prosecutors and the FBI are continuing to investigate the case.

The report paints a disturbing picture of commanders who failed to adequately plan for the rally, refused to bring in more officers when tensions escalated, issued confusing and sometimes contradictory orders and failed to control officers. It found that officers repeatedly used their weapons in ways that violated LAPD policies and appeared not to follow basic training guidelines.

In the days after the melee, Bratton and other top officials criticized the general tactics of police at the park, but the report offered a level of unvarnished detail and a critical tone that even some LAPD critics described as highly unusual, if not unprecedented.

The review, presented to the Police Commission on Tuesday, was written by Deputy Chief Michael Hillmann and Police Administrator Gerald L. Chaleff.

Reaction to the document was mixed: Some police commissioners called it a blunt effort to get to the truth of what happened, but some civil rights groups criticized it for not delving deeper into the action of individual officers who used batons and less-than-lethal rounds on people.

Bratton on Tuesday repeatedly apologized for "significant senior management failures, myself on down." Bratton had left his office to attend an event at Universal Studios on the day of the melee and learned of the problems when Villaraigosa called him from Central America, where the mayor had gone for the start of a trade mission, according to the report.

"I, as chief of police, regret deeply that this occurred on my watch," Bratton told a City Hall news conference, where he was joined by Villaraigosa and other city leaders. "I accept full responsibility for it occurring on my watch."

Villaraigosa condemned the police response, saying the LAPD had an obligation to ensure the protesters' and reporters' freedom of speech.

"What happened was wrong," he said. "The inadequate planning, the breakdown in command and control, misuse of tactics created a cascading chain of escalating misjudgments."

The "cascade" began well before the May Day protest, the report found.

Deputy Chief Lee Carter, who was in charge of policing the rally and has since retired after being demoted, "underestimated the size and significance" of the event, even though a May Day gathering a year before drew hundreds of thousands of people.

When a Rampart-area captain suggested additional planning before the march, he was "verbally reprimanded" by Carter, the report said. Additionally, the officers who ultimately confronted the protesters -- including those from the elite Metropolitan Division -- played no role in the planning phase.

Three hours before the march turned violent, Carter, Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger and Deputy Chief Richard Roupoli decided to reduce the police presence at the park. The commanders released three of four platoons that had been ordered to stand by.

As the crowds grew that afternoon, Carter and the other commanders did not take advantage of the more than 450 officers available to handle the crowds at the park, relying instead on a smaller group of Metro officers who easily became overwhelmed. But even the 450 officers were about half what several local police captains had told superiors were needed to handle the crowds.

As chaos ensued in the park, officers and their commanders grew confused over who was in charge. Rampart-area Capt. John Egan had been designated as LAPD's point person at the park. But Carter and Cmdr. Louis Gray began to make decisions and give orders.

The resulting mix-up left no single "incident commander" in control and made line officers uncertain about who was directing the operation. In one radio transmission, a lieutenant referred to the person in charge as "they," underscoring the absence of a single leader as LAPD policy requires. The report said officers noticed "obvious tension" among the three command officers and that numerous requests over the radio for information and resources went unanswered, leaving lieutenants in the field to formulate their own plans to control the crowd.

When clashes with protesters and journalists began, officers used more force than LAPD policies allow, the report found.

Officers shot 146 less-than-lethal rounds, including foam projectiles that were fired directly into the crowd rather than at the ground as LAPD policy mandates. Police also used batons to strike protesters and journalists more than 100 times. Many of the baton strikes were inflicted on peaceful demonstrators, the report found.

"Officers struck individuals who appeared to be passively standing in place, not engaging in aggressive and/or combative behavior," the report said.

Peter Bibring, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, said the revelations about the use of batons was one of the most startling findings in the LAPD report.

"It revealed that officers and supervisors believed they were free to use their batons ... if peaceful protesters failed to respond to dispersal orders quickly enough. Knowledge that this is wrong is the basic use of force policy," he said.

The report concluded that the source of the incident was a group of 20 to 30 individuals who provoked police by throwing sticks, pieces of concrete and water bottles filled with ice and gravel.

LAPD officials decided to disperse the crowd by declaring an unlawful assembly. Yet even as commanders tried to gain control of the situation, they failed to give protesters sufficient notice to disperse, the report found.

A sound truck that would have allowed police to deliver their order for the crowd to leave never arrived on the skirmish line and the message was broadcast from a helicopter in English after riot-helmeted Metro officers had already begun to clear the park. The declaration did not include required directions on where to go.

Police wound up moving the small group of agitators toward peaceful protesters and members of the media assembled in the northern section of the park.

"Had a higher degree of leadership been exhibited that afternoon, the events of May 1, 2007, may have never occurred," the report concluded.

Carter said he had been advised by his attorney not to comment, but he disputed the information in the report.

The president of the police officers union said the report properly acknowledged poor planning and communication problems but said it is still far too early to judge the actions of individual officers.

"As we have consistently said, training is the backbone of good police work," said Tim Sands, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League. "Constant, updated training ensures that officers know not only what to do, but can implement the department's policies, procedures and expectations for any given incident."

The report received a far more mixed reception among community leaders.

Gladys Limon of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund said voiced dissatisfaction.

"It raises more questions than it answers," she said. "There is obviously excessive force here. We won't be satisfied until the issues involving these 26 officers and ways they treated peaceful women, men and children are fully revealed."

Veteran civil rights attorney Luis Carrillo said he was pleased with some aspects of the report but that it was still too early to close the books on the incident.

"Part of it was refreshing, the breakdown in command and control, tactics and planning," said Carrillo, who represents demonstrators injured in the melee. "But it is still incomplete because we don't know if any of the police officers will be disciplined or whether the D.A. will charge any officers."

The report is available online at www.lapd.org.

richard.winton@latimes.com

duke.helfand@latimes.com

Times staff writers Anna Gorman and Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Faults in leadership

Here are some of the leadership breakdowns cited in the MacArthur Park report:

Planning: LAPD commanders underestimated crowds for the immigration protest and turned away more officers who could have helped control the crowd.

Resources: A sound truck to help disperse the crowd never arrived. A dispersal order from a helicopter was only given in English. Not enough officers were inside the park to control the crowd.

Command: Top commanders bickered and gave confusing and contradictory orders. Officers said their radio requests for orders were ignored. It was unclear who was in charge.

Tactics: Officers ignored LAPD policies by using batons and less-than-lethal rounds on protesters and journalists who were either demonstrating peacefully or simply standing in place.

Source: LAPD report

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Voices

'I, as chief of police, regret deeply that this occurred on my watch. I accept full responsibility for it occurring on my watch.'

-- William J. Bratton Police chief

The detail in part of the report 'was refreshing, the breakdown in command and control, tactics and planning. But [it] is still incomplete because we don't know if any of the police officers will be disciplined or whether the D.A. will charge any officers.'

-- Luis Carillo An attorney representing demonstrators who is a veteran of police abuse cases

'The community-police relations were damaged greatly by the events of May Day. This report is a first step to regain the trust between the department and the community.'

-- Anthony Pacheco Police Commission president

'When you unleash this kind of brutal force on a vulnerable population that is already fearful of the police, it really undermines the relationship.'

-- Angelica Salas Executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles

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