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Troubling videos capture L.A. police violence, aggression amid demonstrations

An LAPD officer chases a suspected looter in an alley behind Hollywood Boulevard.
An LAPD officer chases a suspected looter in an alley behind Hollywood Boulevard earlier this week.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

In one video, at least eight Los Angeles police officers surround a woman lying in a Hollywood street as the buzz of a Taser fills the air. People scream from apartment balconies for the officers, who appear to be firing the stun gun at the woman, to stop.

In another video, an LAPD vehicle barrels into a crowd of protesters in Pershing Square, nearly driving over one before backing up and speeding away as protesters throw objects at the car.

On Tuesday, footage of a curfew arrest in Hollywood ends with the unarmed arrestee held at gunpoint and pleading for mercy as a police radio squawks with orders for officers to take anyone they see into custody. In L.A. County, sheriff’s deputies in one video appear to shoot pellets out of a moving vehicle at young men on the street, and those in another video punch and knee a young man on the ground in Compton.

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Nicholas Flickinger, a 29-year-old social worker, filmed officers in Hollywood piling on top of a woman.

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With cellphone cameras everywhere and social media providing a livestream of unprecedented protests against police brutality, there has been a steady stream of new videos showing troubling police behavior.

It will take time for a full assessment of how police in Southern California performed and how widespread cases of misconduct have been. Protesters and some civil liberties activists have slammed the police tactics as unacceptable. And even city leaders admit there have been problematic incidents and have called for investigations and reforms based on what has emerged.

Mayor Eric Garcetti said the LAPD would reduce the use of foam rounds after many complaints from protesters who were hit by the projectiles. The mayor also said Wednesday that he would support the creation of a special prosecutor to review officer criminal misconduct cases, a longtime demand of activists.

The Times reviewed more than a dozen videos and shared several with police officials for comment. Josh Rubenstein, a police spokesman, said officers had been responding for days to “dynamic and at times dangerous situations” and had had rocks and bottles thrown at them.

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But Rubenstein declined to provide explanations for the specific actions of officers caught in videos that have gone viral, including several in which officers can be seen aggressively beating non-violent protesters with their batons.

The Rodney King beating 29 years ago and riots the following year sparked major reforms in the LAPD that continued over the last few decades. That includes rules around the use of force, restrictions on holds and using flashlights as weapons and, more recently, deescalation training designed to make officers less likely to get into violent altercations with people. Even some longtime LAPD critics have said the department has made progress.

But the protests of the last week show much more needs to be done, they said.

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“It’s nothing but a confirmation of what black activists have been saying for decades — that police abuse and excessive force is real,” said Najee Ali, a longtime South Los Angeles civil rights leader. “Now, with the spread of social media and everyone having a cellphone, we can actually document what we feel is abuse.

“We finally have the proof.”

Ali said he and other leaders planned to gather outside LAPD headquarters Thursday morning to demand an audience with LAPD Chief Michel Moore and L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, to share videos community members have gathered so that officials can launch investigations.

They aren’t alone in demanding answers.

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In recent days, the Police Commission and two City Council members have called on the department to review its use of force during the demonstrations. The department’s tactics also have come under fire from business owners, who say responding officers have repeatedly opted to arrest nonviolent protesters instead of looters at various scenes across the city.

Amid nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, former President Obama urged every mayor in the nation Wednesday to review their cities’ police use-of-force policies and commit to needed reforms.

While Moore, Villanueva and Garcetti have largely commended officers for their handling of the unrest in recent days, they too have acknowledged that problems have arisen. Moore has said internal affairs officers are working around the clock to investigate specific incidents — including the one in which a patrol vehicle was driven into protesters.

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The LAPD issued a statement Thursday acknowledging the footage and urging the public to contact Internal Affairs investigators or the department’s Office of the Inspector General if they believed they had been the victims of unjust force or misconduct

“We are aware of individuals who have posted videos online and on social media depicting encounters with the police that they believe constitutes excessive force or misconduct during these demonstrations,” the statement said. “We will investigate each instance thoroughly and hold any officer who violates department policy accountable.”

Rubenstein said complaints could be filed with the department’s Professional Standards Bureau toll-free at (800) 339-6868, or with the inspector general at (213) 893-6400 or (213) 893-6464, or by e-mail at oigcompl@lapd.online.

Villanueva said his department was investigating misconduct allegations and videos of potential misconduct. He said the scene in Compton came after an officer “narrowly escaped being killed by fleeing looters” in a vehicle, and the one in which officers are seen shooting out of a vehicle — which was retweeted to millions of people by rapper Lil Nas X — involved pepper balls being deployed. Both incidents are under investigation.

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Some protesters and other police reform advocates say a reckoning is needed, beginning with the ouster of Moore — who was forced to apologize this week after he said looters were as responsible for Floyd’s death as the officer who had his knee on Floyd’s neck — and continuing with criminal charges for officers caught assaulting people. Garcetti and some police commanders have expressed support for Moore.

There is no question officers face unusual challenges. Though the vast majority of the protests have been peaceful, some people have thrown objects at officers, and more than two dozen officers have been injured. One had his skull fractured. It’s unclear how many protesters have suffered injuries. Looters hit scores of businesses, smashing windows and stealing merchandise.

But several witnesses say the police actions have been intentional and inexcusable.

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Nicholas Flickinger, a 29-year-old social worker who recorded the video of officers in Hollywood piling on top of a woman, said he had had to call police for help multiple times at work. But, he said, images like the one he recorded Tuesday left him feeling an animosity toward law enforcement he’d never felt before.

“The way the LAPD has dealt with everything, I’ve never felt so anti-police or -LAPD,” he said. “I’ve always been of the opinion that there’s good and bad in every group … but even if there’s a majority of good officers, they’re not doing anything. It sounds like the cliche, canned thing, but they’re all complicit in what’s going on.”

Jonathan Uttenreither, 48, of Hollywood said he was near a police skirmish line on 3rd Street in the Fairfax District on Saturday when police started advancing, firing foam rounds “indiscriminately” into the crowd.

“They were not aiming low, that was clear,” he said.

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As he started to flee, he saw a young woman also running away suddenly drop to the ground. Rushing to her aid, he realized she had been hit in the back of the head with one of the police projectiles. As blood ran down her neck and he and another man tried to carry her away, rounds popped off the ground around them, one grazing his arm.

“I realized the police were still firing on us as we were attempting to carry this wounded woman off the street. They were intentionally shooting at us,” Uttenreither said.

The fact that such actions are part of an orchestrated police response is outrageous, he said.

“It crushes hope that there’s any intention from the police to force themselves or the politicians that control them to have any accountability,” he said. “It’s like the police putting themselves at war with the population they are supposed to be serving rather than attempting to deescalate and solve problems.”

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At least 2,500 people were arrested by the LAPD from Friday through Tuesday, and Moore has acknowledged that only 200 of those people were taken into custody on suspicion of looting or burglary offenses. The figures jibe with complaints from lawyers and activists, who contend the department used curfew violations and dispersal orders in recent days to squelch protest rather than ensure public safety.

“It was just a colossal expenditure of time and money that didn’t have to occur while you could have been dealing with other much more serious activities,” said civil rights attorney Carol Sobel, who has successfully sued the department in the past over its handling of protests.

Although not commenting directly on use-of-force incidents, Moore has said the department needs to become more aggressive in response to sustained looting and mounting injuries to officers.

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Police have also been increasingly set on edge by reports of serious violence against officers in other cities. A Las Vegas police officer was shot in the head while responding to a protest on the Strip on Tuesday night, and three New York City officers were stabbed and shot Wednesday in Brooklyn. The NYPD officers are expected to survive.

But in L.A., many fear the LAPD is escalating an already tense situation with each misstep.

Flickinger said he and his boyfriend had been part of a march in Hollywood on Tuesday night but decided to get off the street rather than risk arrest due to a curfew violation. Around 7:30 p.m., he saw a woman walking away from a group of police officers on Argyle Avenue near Hollywood Boulevard. The officers had been yelling at her to stop, but the woman did not appear to be carrying anything or armed, according to Flickinger, who said the woman was then taken to the ground.

“One officer went at her and then seven people piled on top. As you can see in the video there’s six or seven officers all pressing their knees on her,” he said, evoking imagery similar to Floyd’s last moments. “They had their hands behind her back and you can hear the sound from the video of just them continuing to Taser her and Taser her. That’s why everyone started screaming, myself included.”

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Brooke Forston, a woman who says she was among the protesters struck by an LAPD cruiser in Pershing Square on Sunday, has filed a notice of claim against the city and accused the officer behind the wheel of escalating an already tense situation.

“Tens of thousands of peaceful protesters gathered to have our voices heard and the driver of this LAPD vehicle chose to create chaos where there had been peace,” her attorney, V. James DeSimone, said in a statement. “At no point did Brooke attempt to harm anyone, and instead the LAPD turned a peaceful march into something dangerous for everyone.”

Lexis-Olivier Ray, a 30-year-old reporter for L.A. Taco, is one of several reporters who say they have been injured by police covering Southern California protests in recent days.

Ray was reporting from a skirmish line between police and demonstrators at 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue on Saturday afternoon, near where Uttenreither had been, when officers began lashing out with batons without having given any dispersal order, he said. He was struck in the stomach.

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“I was staying out of their way and I was working peacefully and just doing my job,” he said.


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