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LAPD faces growing criticism for excessive force and poor tactics during protests

AN LAPD officer watches for people tossing debris from tall buildings on Broadway.
AN LAPD officer watches for people tossing debris from tall buildings as dozens of protesters are arrested for curfew violations on Broadway.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Police Department faces growing criticism over its handling of protests as new videos and images emerged Friday of violent, aggressive behavior by officers.

Mayor Eric Garcetti found himself walking a fine line, criticizing episodes of excessive force that have been captured on video while also defending positive contributions that individual officers and law enforcement investigations have made, such as breaking up human trafficking rings. He said some of the police tactics seen in the last week have “no place in the City of Angels.”

A coalition of criminal justice activists and homeless advocates filed a lawsuit against the city over how police have handled protests following the death of George Floyd, accusing officers of shooting a homeless man in the eye with rubber bullets and holding people for upward of 12 hours for simple curfew violations.

The suit — filed late Friday by the Los Angeles chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, Black Lives Matter and Los Angeles Community Action Network — accused the LAPD of violating protesters’ right to assemble and using excessive force.

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The complaint also provided new information about an image of a homeless man bleeding from the eye in downtown Los Angeles that had gone viral and been shared by many critical of the department over the past week.

The LAPD has not completed a breakdown of arrests during the protests. Department spokesman Josh Rubenstein estimated that about 2,700 people were arrested between May 29 and Tuesday during the height of the protests; booking records suggest the majority of those arrests were for failure to obey a dispersal order or curfew violations.

The department has not provided updated arrest figures since Tuesday. The lawsuit estimated 3% of the 2,700 arrests were for looting or other crimes. Booking records reviewed by The Times earlier this week showed about 150 people had been arrested for looting during that time, approximately 5% of the overall arrest total.

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“Over the past week, while [Black Lives Matter Los Angeles] and its members were engaged in lawful First Amendment activity, the LAPD used force to terminate the protests, including the indiscriminate use of so-called less lethal weapons that caused injury to its members and instilled fear in them that, if they chose to assemble in public spaces to express their opposition to police violence across the nation against black men and women, they would be the subject of such violence and arrest,” the suit said.

The suit also accused the LAPD of arresting a number of homeless people for curfew violations even though they “had no place they could go to avoid violating.”

The suit contained a gruesome picture of a homeless man in a wheelchair known as “Cincinnati” bleeding from the eye, allegedly after police shot him in the face with rubber bullets. The LAPD has said it uses less-than-lethal foam projectiles, not rubber bullets.

“He pleaded with police not to use force on him before being shot in the face,” the suit claims.

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Rubenstein confirmed the incident involving the homeless man is the subject of an Internal Affairs investigation, as are several other widely circulated clips of alleged police misconduct that have surfaced in recent days. He urged anyone who believes they were the victim of police misconduct to contact Internal Affairs or the Office of the Inspector General, but declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Earlier this week, LAPD Chief Michel Moore said the department needed to show more force in response to attacks on police officers and reports of looting in various parts of the city. At least 27 officers have been injured in the last week while responding to protests or looting, including one officer who was hospitalized with a fractured skull.

But in recent days, the LAPD has been criticized for its response to the demonstrations. Two City Council members and the president of the civilian Police Commission, former federal prosecutor Eileen Decker, have called for a review.

On Friday, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) also called on the Police Commission to investigate the department’s response last week to protests and looting in the Fairfax District.

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While the area saw significant looting and police cars being set on fire, footage has also emerged showing officers striking unarmed protesters with batons. A reporter for L.A. Taco said he was attacked with a baton without provocation, despite declaring himself a member of the press.

“Folks who loot or commit arson or assault police officers are committing crimes and that cannot be condoned or tolerated. At the same time, you can’t attribute what some folks did on one day, and then deal with peaceful protesters on a different day and hit them with batons,” Lieu said Friday. “They are a different set of people, so it’s not a justification to say just because some people did some looting, therefore we’re going to treat all protesters the same.”

Asked about the use of batons or foam rounds to break up demonstrations, Moore said officers could be justified in using such force if an unlawful assembly is declared because of violence, attacks on officers or destruction of property. But he said the key was the proportionality of force used and acknowledged at least one incident from last weekend required his involvement to stop officers from being violent.

“Officers were taking rocks, bottles, other projectiles [and] sustaining injuries from members within a very large crowd. And that crowd, it was the determination of on-scene commanders that it was an unlawful assembly, and that that crowd needed to disperse,” he said. “And what I witnessed was officers resorting to force, including baton strikes to achieve that, and I went personally to the scene and took actions to stop that.”

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Still, consequences from the department’s actions last weekend continued to surface. Brooke Fortson, 29, who said she was peacefully protesting when an LAPD cruiser slammed into her in Pershing Square on Sunday, has filed notice that she plans to sue the city.

Television footage showed an LAPD vehicle driving toward a crowd of protesters near 5th and Hill streets Sunday afternoon. After briefly stopping as protesters tried to get around the car, the car speeds forward, striking at least one person.

Fortson told The Times she suffered bruises across her body after the car struck her in the side. The LAPD has said protesters were attacking the vehicle, which was responding to a report of a robbery, but television footage does not appear to show that. Fortson also denied that claim.

“My experience of what happened was, after I was hit, I jumped away and I remember hands pulling me toward the curb and asking me if I was OK. I remember hearing someone yell this is a peaceful protest, everybody kneel, and everybody on the steps kneeled down,” she said. “Largely, the vast majority of people stayed and remained peaceful and deescalated the situation that the cop caused.”

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Meanwhile, dozens of protests continued across Southern California.

A Friday afternoon demonstration at Santa Monica City Hall turned into a raucous Q&A between peaceful protesters and the city police chief, interim city manager and mayor.

Mayor Kevin McKeown and interim City Manager Lane Dilg attempted to address protesters and were met with questions about the use of tear gas last Sunday in Santa Monica and calls to cut the city’s police budget.

“We will look at the actions of Sunday; we will determine what we can do to keep our community safe and facilitate peaceful protest,” Dilg said.

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“You called in the National Guard!” one protester shouted.

Police Chief Cynthia Renaud said the list of names of people who died at the hands of police doesn’t seem to end, but they stop in Santa Monica.

“I believe in the peace; I believe in the community I serve,” she said.

Then she, the mayor and others took a knee in solidarity with the protesters. Some in the crowd decried the moment as a photo op. One protester said if Renaud couldn’t admit that violence was used against nonviolent protesters then she should resign.

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Times staff writers Alex Wigglesworth, Tony Barboza, Joseph Serna and Leila Miller contributed to this report.


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