Officers in melee to face censure

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles police officials announced Tuesday that 17 officers and two sergeants from the department’s elite Metropolitan Division should be punished for their roles in last year’s May Day melee in MacArthur Park, which left scores of people injured.

The pending discipline revolves “mostly around force issues,” LAPD Cmdr. Rick Webb told the civilian Police Commission at its weekly meeting. The department’s misconduct findings come after more than a year of investigative work, which included the review of hundreds of hours of videotapes showing officers swinging batons and firing foam rubber bullets at journalists and immigrant rights protesters, officials said.

The recommended punishment for the officers was considered confidential and not disclosed by LAPD officials. Under department rules, the penalties can range from a relatively minor official reprimand to termination, authorities said.


The final outcome of the cases may not be known for weeks, months or even longer. The officers are entitled to a hearing called a Board of Rights -- the LAPD’s equivalent of a trial -- at which they are given an opportunity to defend themselves against the charges. Those hearings are closed to the public.

“Justice requires that we investigate to the fullest extent possible,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in response to the LAPD’s announcement. “The people of Los Angeles are looking for responsibility and accountability and really expect it.”

Police Chief William J. Bratton has already conceded that bad decisions by some of his top commanders contributed to the chaos on May 1, 2007. The deputy chief who served as the incident commander promptly retired after Bratton said he was going to demote him.

Tim Sands, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said he hoped the breakdown in command would be taken into account when the accused officers’ cases are considered.

“We trust that each of the officers involved will be given a fair review that will evaluate their actions in the context of what they had been ordered to do, the tools and training they were given to accomplish those tasks, and the conditions under which they were operating,” Sands said in a prepared statement.

Two members of the civilian Police Commission that oversees the LAPD said they were struck by the fact that discipline was not recommended for anyone above the rank of sergeant.

“We just want to be sure that every level within the department is reviewed with the same level of scrutiny,” said Commissioner Alan Skobin, who also serves as a reserve deputy for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

“That is something the commission is going to be taking a good, hard look at,” said Commission Vice President John Mack. “Why are these lieutenants and captains not being held accountable?”

Attorney Carol Sobel, who represents 186 protesters and journalists who have filed lawsuits against the police, said she suspects that the officers facing discipline are limited to those whose actions were captured on video that she and others turned over to the police.

“The message here seems to be if you do something wrong, make sure it is not captured on the video,” she said.

Gladys Limon, a staff attorney at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, offered a similar assessment.

“It is clearly a very small fraction of the number of officers that were involved,” Limon said.

“This only raises more questions about what standards and practices are guiding the investigation.”

Victor Narro, co-president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Lawyers Guild and one of the organizers of the rally, said the charges were a “step in the right direction.” He said some officers deserved harsher punishment than others.

“The discipline should equate to the injustice that took place,” Narro said.

In a scathing report last year, LAPD officials blamed the flawed police response on a series of fateful decisions by police commanders that escalated hostilities and resulted in a widespread breakdown in behavior by officers.

The report painted 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.

The rally, involving about 10,000 protesters, was peaceful for much of the day. In fact, one of the deputy chiefs supervising the police response had released three of four platoons of Metropolitan Division officers who were standing by in case things got out of hand at the park. The Metro division, as it’s known, is home to the SWAT, K-9 and horse-mounted units, and its officers are considered among the most physically fit and best trained in the department.

Shortly after the three Metro platoons were relieved, officers in the park were overwhelmed by a small group of protesters throwing rocks and bottles, according to the report made public in October.

As police commanders tried to formulate a response, there was a breakdown in the chain of command that left no single “incident commander” in charge and left line officers uncertain about who was in charge, the report read.

LAPD commanders ultimately decided to declare an unlawful assembly and clear the park. But they didn’t give protesters sufficient notice before moving in, the report found.

The resulting chaos, in which officers were seen striking seemingly passive protesters and reporters with batons and firing less-than-lethal foam rubber bullets into the crowd, was captured by TV news crews and broadcast worldwide.

When it was over, 246 protesters and journalists and 18 police officers alleged injuries including emotional distress, bruises and broken bones. More than 250 lawsuits were filed against the city.

One of the plaintiffs, Pedro Romualdo, attended the protest with his wife and three children and was taking photos when chaos broke out. He said one officer hit him on the foot with a baton and another shot him in the back several times with foam rubber bullets.

“It was out of control,” he said. “It was unbelievable.”

Romualdo, 37, said he was pleased to hear Tuesday that officers would be disciplined but that he didn’t understand why it took nearly 15 months. He believes the officers involved should be suspended or fired.

“This should have happened a long time ago,” said Romualdo, a computer technician who lives in Los Angeles.