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LAPD’s use of horses to clear crowd condemned by activists, civil rights leaders

During the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president, LAPD conducted mounted horse patrols in downtown Los Angeles.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Police Department’s use of officers on horseback to confront a crowd of people in downtown L.A. on Inauguration Day is being condemned by activists and longtime civil rights leaders as a dangerous violation of past reforms.

“It’s like déjà vu,” said Carol Sobel, a prominent attorney whose litigation has forced the LAPD to scale back aggressive crowd control practices in the past.

Sobel said the LAPD used to regularly use its mounted unit to clear crowds, which she called “medieval,” but had changed its tactics in recent years after she and others won settlements restricting some of the department’s more aggressive tactics at protests.

But this week, footage emerged that again showed a panicked crowd of activists fleeing from advancing LAPD horses on a sidewalk, as mounted officers screamed, “Leave the area!” and one wielded a long baton known as a bokken.

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“It’s, again, the lack of planning and training,” Sobel said.

Police said the videos only captured a brief moment in a broader incident in which a crowd had surrounded two mounted officers, and the entire unit needed to quickly push forward to get out of the area.

“Our intent is not to push the crowd. Our intent is to get our horses out of there, to get out and deescalate the situation,” said Cmdr. Al Labrada, who led the response to a pair of demonstrations downtown Wednesday.

Labrada said command staff reviewed body-camera footage and confirmed that no one was struck with a bokken.

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Sobel said none of that excused the LAPD’s decision to bring horses into a nonviolent gathering in the first place.

“With the horses, that bokken, the fact that they did not connect with anyone is just luck on their part,” she said. “Why would you ever put yourself in that position? This is a really bad response.”

Law enforcement in California remains on high alert for threats that may arise in response to President Biden’s inauguration.

Activists said it all began hours before, when a pair of events near City Hall drew a crowd of no more than 50 people. A union representing roofers had planned an event to mark President Trump’s exit from the Oval Office on City Hall’s steps, while a pair of food trucks often seen at area protests had said they would park on 1st Street near City Hall’s South Lawn to provide free food for the homeless people who camp there.

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Labrada said police had been monitoring the gatherings for a while, concerned less about the crowd on the lawn and more about the vehicles parking illegally on the street — drawing people around them and into active traffic lanes.

Around 3:30 p.m., LAPD officers approached the Riot Kitchen and Revolution Ribs food trucks and told them to move, according to Traci Carr, a local activist at the event. Labrada said their intent was to clear the no-parking zone.

When eight officers on motorcycles moved in to advise the trucks they had to go, he said, they were surrounded by jeering members of the crowd who screamed insults. One officer was surrounded by people holding their cellphones up in his face and putting stickers on his motorcycle, Labrada said.

The mounted unit was already staged in the area for any potential unrest related to the inauguration, Labrada said, and a decision was made to have them respond to the scene instead as the motorcycle officers pulled away.

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California spent nearly $19 million for a week of high security around the state Capitol and other places during the inauguration of President Biden.

According to three people who were present, officers on horseback quickly formed a line on 1st Street and began wading into the crowd, shouting “move” with little to no warning.

“Some of my friends were squished between horses,” said Andy Montenegro, who was on the South Lawn. No serious injuries were reported, but Montenegro said one woman’s ankle was stomped on by a horse.

Labrada said the mounted unit moved into the crowd only after two mounted officers were surrounded and someone put a sticker on the face shield of one horse. He said the officers couldn’t turn their horses away from the crowd safely, so a decision was made to move the entire line forward instead, to clear the area.

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“We’re not going to allow our officers to be surrounded or assaulted or put in a dangerous situation,” Labrada said.

He said a review of body-camera footage showed the officers acted within policy: They never entered the South Lawn, and deescalated the situation when they needed to. None of the officers struck anyone with a baton, he said.

“Fortunately, no one was injured,” Labrada said.

Sobel said that’s only the case because police were lucky, and that the LAPD should conduct a deeper review into why the incident was allowed to occur.

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“This is not a SWAT situation, this is not a hostage situation, this is not an armed person,” she said. “The police need to figure out how you deescalate that. You don’t deescalate by bringing in large horses.”

Current LAPD policy — based on past settlements around policing of protests — says that batons can be used to push protesters who don’t listen to verbal commands in a crowd control setting, but can only be used as an “impact device” if a crowd or individual is “threatening or violent in nature.” Officers are not supposed to swing sticks at people’s heads.

Sobel said swinging a bokken from a horse represents an inherent violation of that policy.

Activists said the use of horses by police at an event to feed people without homes was more evidence of a double standard in how the LAPD responds to crowds in the city.

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Carr noted that LAPD officers took a much more hands-off approach to a group of Trump’s supporters outside City Hall two weeks prior, on Jan. 6, when demonstrators were filmed attacking a Black woman and lingered in the area near City Hall for hours after police had declared the gathering unlawful.

Police made a few arrests that day, mostly after fights, but none in the woman’s attack despite efforts by her and others to get them to act at the time. Police are now searching for suspects in the assault.

“We had Trump supporters that attacked a woman, pulled her wig off and bragged about it, compared to us in a park with two food trucks who were providing aid,” Carr said. “If we’re Trump supporters and white supremacists, we can scream our heads off and start fights … and not have LAPD interference for hours.”

The Jan. 6 incident occurred the same day that a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, managed to overpower Capitol Police and breached the building. There, too, activists alleged a double standard in policing.

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The LAPD faced criticism for its mostly hands-off approach at the pro-Trump event, and some worried that Wednesday’s actions were an overcorrection.

“LAPD learned the wrong lessons from the backlash about the 6th,” said Sean Carmitchel, an independent journalist and activist who often films street protests in L.A. and witnessed the horses move in on the crowd Wednesday. “Rather than take the lesson of … remaining politically neutral, it seems as though the lesson they’ve taken is to crack down on protests more heavily.”


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