LAPD braces for May Day protest
On a warm morning earlier this month, about 600 Los Angeles police officers gathered in the empty parking lot at Dodger Stadium for some high-stakes role playing.
Most pretended to be protesters -- standing in for the ones expected to converge on downtown Los Angeles on Thursday as part of May Day immigration rallies planned across the country.
As some in the mock crowd threw bottles and acted the part of agitators, officers assigned to undercover “extraction units” quickly and quietly isolated the rabble-rousers and hauled them away.
“Is everyone clear on chain of command?” Michael Hillmann, a deputy chief in the Los Angeles Police Department, asked afterward. “Everyone clear on who is in charge of what?”
Under normal circumstances, such questions -- and the elaborate exercise -- might be considered overkill. But on the heels of last year’s disastrous May Day, when police injured marchers and journalists during a botched effort to clear MacArthur Park, LAPD leaders are not in the mood to leave things to chance.
The debacle was a setback in the department’s effort to improve its image in the city and shed a reputation for unwarranted aggression.
For Police Chief William J. Bratton, the incident was an embarrassment and one of the most serious tests of his leadership since he became chief in 2002. His decision to quickly and publicly apologize for his officers’ handling of the protesters managed to temper widespread outrage somewhat, but it also irked police union leaders, who accused him of jumping to conclusions.
“It was probably the most significant multiple set of crises all occurring at the same time that I had ever faced in my career,” he said in a recent interview. “But in responding to them, it was always with the focus of ‘OK, how out of this negative can we get something positive?’ ”
In recent months, the department has been planning for this May Day’s event: gathering intelligence, meeting with organizers and training officers in contingency plans and crowd control.
“Last year, it just wasn’t organized. It was a disaster,” Hillmann said. “It was as if the people involved went into it with the idea that the event would work itself out. Crowds do not manage themselves.”
Organizers of Thursday’s march, which is expected to attract from 20,000 to 100,000 people, have voiced cautious optimism that this year’s event would go smoothly. They have commended Hillmann and other LAPD leaders for their efforts.
“It’s up to the LAPD to follow through on their promise, to be there to support the march and make sure all of the march participants have a good experience,” said Bethany Leal of the Multi-Ethnic Immigrant Worker Organizing Network, one of the sponsors of the march and rally.
Juan Jose Gutierrez of Latino Movement USA echoed Leal, adding that many immigrants still distrust police because of their heavy-handed actions last year.
“There has been progress, but I don’t think the relationship has been totally repaired,” he said. “A lot of us are in a wait-and-see mode.”
The scrutiny will extend far beyond the city’s Latino communities. Federal monitors, who oversee the department’s efforts to comply with a set of mandated reforms imposed after a corruption and abuse scandal in the late 1990s, will be on hand to observe.
Members of the department’s civilian oversight commission, who have sat in on some of the planning meetings, and legal observers from several community and civil rights groups also will be on the streets.
The training at Dodger Stadium arose directly out of what went wrong last year. Near the end of a largely peaceful day of immigrant rights rallies, a group of 20 to 30 people at MacArthur Park provoked police by throwing sticks and water bottles filled with ice and gravel.
Police failed to effectively cut off the violent pocket from the rest of the crowd and, amid growing confusion, commanders gave an order to disperse the entire gathering. The message to leave was broadcast but only in English and from a speaker on a noisy helicopter.
Chaos ensued as officers in riot gear pushed their way through the park, wielding batons and firing nonlethal bullets. More than 240 protesters and journalists have claimed they were injured, as well as 18 officers. An internal LAPD report cited severe shortcomings in leadership, a lack of supervision and deficiencies in training.
In the demonstration’s aftermath, Bratton reassigned two of the commanders who oversaw the melee. An LAPD investigation resulted in allegations of misconduct against 29 officers, but a discipline panel has not yet made any recommendations about punishment.
More than 250 claims were filed against the city. Attorneys from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and private firms are negotiating a possible settlement in the case.
Hillmann was preparing to retire last May, but Bratton asked him to stay on to coordinate the policing of this year’s event. Over the last year, all of the roughly 9,400 LAPD officers have had to go through an updated crowd-control training course; more than two dozen standouts throughout the department have been tapped to head “incident management teams” that will take charge of large events in the future.
Since February, however, the soft-spoken, detailed-oriented Hillmann has been focused almost entirely on Thursday, refining and redoing plans.
A draft of his hour-by-hour schedule for the day runs from 6 in the morning to 10 at night and includes plans for more than 60 deployments of various units, briefings and other details.
At a recent meeting, he posed a series of worst-case scenarios -- including a car plowing into a crowd of marchers and a counter-protest by anti-illegal immigration groups -- to supervisors with roles Thursday and pushed them to devise response plans.
Bratton, Hillmann and other LAPD leaders have also included march organizers in the planning and have reached out to civic leaders.
“It was pretty unusual; I was pleasantly surprised. But they were wise to reach out and make it clear that they are interested in seeing that there isn’t a repeat of last year,” Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said of a meeting Bratton asked her to attend.
This year, immigrant rights activists will march to push for legislation that would include a path to citizenship and urge the presidential candidates to present their reform plans.
They also are emphasizing the economic and political contributions of immigrants and calling for an end to raids and deportations. Marches are planned across the country, including cities in Texas, North Carolina and Florida.
In Los Angeles, protesters will gather at two sites: the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Broadway, and MacArthur Park, and at 2 p.m. will begin marching toward City Hall, converging at 5th Street and Broadway.
Some of the people caught up in last year’s melee don’t plan to return this year. Guatemalan immigrant Jazmin Marroquin, 32, was listening to music in MacArthur Park with her youngest children -- ages 3 and 4 -- when she heard shots and saw police closing in. She dropped to the ground, covering her children, but she said an officer kicked her in the back and hit her with a baton.
Marroquin said that when she saw the news about the upcoming rally, the dread of last year returned. Her children are still afraid of police and the family avoids the park, she said.
“It’s something I will never forget,” she said. “Instead of taking care of us, they were the ones who attacked us.”
But many will return, said Kristina Campbell, staff attorney at MALDEF. They are shaken and angry about what happened to them, she said, but still want to be heard. Campbell said she expects the tone of this year’s march to be much different.
“What happened last year was unfortunate and unlawful, but that doesn’t mean that people should be fearful,” she said. “It’s a new day, and we are going to continue to go forward.”