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LAPD faces ‘post-Rodney King environment’ as scrutiny over George Floyd protests builds

A police officer points a weapon at a protester
An LAPD officer aims a projectile weapon at a protester last summer in a still from body camera footage.
(Los Angeles Police Department)

A damning report released this week rebuking the Los Angeles Police Department for a cascade of missteps during last summer’s mass protests against police abuses was far from the last word on the department’s failures.

In fact, while the report is a bitter pill for LAPD officials to swallow, it is also just one piece in a kaleidoscope of scrutiny that they are set to face over their handling of the protests in coming months. For a department largely defined by its history seesawing between failure and reform, it will be yet another period of forced change brought on by more investigations and a still-mounting pile of lawsuits.

“It’s like the post-Rodney King environment,” said Connie Rice, a longtime civil rights attorney who has both sued the LAPD and consulted with its leaders on reforms. “As usual with a high-profile incident, you’ve got a lot of sectors looking at what went wrong.”

For weeks in late May and early June, protesters took to city streets demanding accountability for several police killings of Black people around the country, including George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky. Though many of the protests remained peaceful, some devolved into intense clashes between protesters and officers while criminals took advantage of the upheaval to burglarize and burn stores. Nightly curfews were instituted and the National Guard was deployed to help restore order.

From downtown to Van Nuys and in the Fairfax district, LAPD officers in riot gear used batons and hard-foam projectiles to disperse protesters and injured many people in the process — some of whom were hospitalized. Police also arrested and detained protesters for hours on buses without bathrooms or water on minor violations.

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Two more reports on the LAPD response are expected to follow the one released this week, which was commissioned by the City Council and written by a team of former LAPD officials. The LAPD is conducting its own review, and the National Police Foundation is doing another on behalf of the L.A. Police Commission, the civilian panel that oversees the department for the mayor. Though critics have speculated that neither will be as critical as the City Council’s, each could reveal additional missteps or malfeasance.

The Police Department has acknowledged it launched internal affairs investigations into several allegations of abuse by officers and other possible misconduct during the protests, including commanders apparently ordering officers to not wear body-worn cameras meant to record their conduct.

In addition, the department is investigating multiple instances in which officers badly wounded or hospitalized protesters by firing on them with hard-foam projectiles or using other serious force. The Police Commission ultimately will decide whether any of those officers violated the department’s policies. At least four officers have been referred to local prosecutors for possible criminal charges.

State lawmakers, meanwhile, are considering legislation that would affect future police responses to protests, including by limiting their use of projectiles.

And looming large is a slate of litigation against the LAPD. It includes individual lawsuits brought by people who allege they were injured or otherwise wronged and a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of protesters by Black Lives Matter Los Angeles and other groups, who accuse police of trampling protesters’ constitutional rights through overly aggressive tactics and mass arrests.

Lawsuits drove much of the meaningful change the LAPD has implemented after heavy-handed and undisciplined responses to past protests, including past efforts to rein in the use of projectile weapons.

With the lawsuits and investigations still underway and the reports still coming, it remains to be seen what will change this time around within the LAPD.

This week’s City Council report included a number of recommendations, including creating an LAPD manager position devoted to upholding crowd control training, and purchasing new software to better collect protest intelligence online.

However, the LAPD, Mayor Eric Garcetti and leading council members all suggested those recommendations would be considered only as part of a broader conversation about reforms — a conversation that will also be informed by the two upcoming reports.

The LAPD said in a statement Thursday that its intent was “to digest the findings from all three reports,” then “identify areas of improvement and a path forward.” Commenting on only the recommendations in the council’s report would be “premature,” the department added. It also noted it has already implemented new training protocols for officers and retrained thousands on crowd control strategies.

“It is our department’s commitment to facilitate people’s ability to express their 1st Amendment rights while ensuring that those who would prey upon others are unable to disrupt public safety, commit violence or property destruction,” the department said.

Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, said she hopes the renewed scrutiny on the LAPD for old problems that are once again surfacing is finally enough to convince city officials that lasting changes require a rethinking of how the city approaches public safety. She called on elected officials to reduce funding to police in favor of what she described as community-based solutions to the inequities and abuses that make people want to protest in the first place.

“This is a moment where decision makers have a chance to step back and say, ‘How can we do things differently? How can we do things more effectively?’” Abdullah said.

Deon Jones, who was badly injured when an officer shot him in the face with a projectile, said the council’s report affirms that the change he is fighting for through his own lawsuit is necessary.

“This report underscores that my injuries were not the result of an isolated bad actor, or even an accident, but rather from systemic issues coming from the highest levels of LAPD that have been festering for years,” Jones said. “It’s time for the excessive force and abusive practices to end. Full stop.”

Rice said the key moving forward — for the department, city leaders and litigants pursuing meaningful settlements — will be to ensure that whatever changes are implemented are designed to actually stick.

Too often, reforms “don’t get embedded. They don’t get passed on. They’re not sustained. The lessons are never learned, or they’re learned briefly and then they’re forgotten,” Rice said. “Where will we be in 10 years?”

Carol Sobel, another longtime civil rights attorney who is helping to represent Black Lives Matter in the current litigation, agreed.

Sobel helped sue the LAPD after it badly mismanaged its response to protests outside the Democratic National Convention in 2000 and during May Day rallies in MacArthur Park in 2007, and she won settlements in each case that mandated reforms.

Now, it’s time to hold the department to account again, she said — and on many of the same issues.

“Our task is to make those reform measures stronger than the ones that we got after the DNC and the ones that we got after May Day,” Sobel said. “The challenge in all of these issues is, how do we make the police accountable to the public?”

Officials have said they expect the two pending reports to be completed this month. The timing of the various internal affairs and force investigations is less clear. The major Black Lives Matter lawsuit is likely to take months to resolve — if not longer — even if the city decides to settle.

The City Council’s Public Safety Committee is scheduled to discuss the findings of the report Wednesday.


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