LAPD confronted federal officials after agents escalated tensions at L.A. protest
A confrontation between U.S. Department of Homeland Security agents and a group of abortion rights protesters in downtown Los Angeles in May prompted L.A. police officials to call a meeting a week later to discuss how federal officers should respond at street protests, according to emails obtained by The Times.
Those expectations, outlined by a Los Angeles Police Department sergeant in a follow-up email to meeting attendees, called for clearer communication about big protests and civil unrest between the LAPD and its federal partners and for a restrained role for federal agents on the ground.
“During major events with civil unrest, the posture will be to document crimes for prosecution at a later date and immediately advise the Los Angeles Police Department command post with intel,” Sgt. Chris Jarvis wrote to DHS and Justice Department officials.
In addition, Jarvis wrote, federal partners “will communicate with LAPD command post during movements from location to location to prevent driving through unruly crowds to prevent the incidents from escalating and agitating the crowd.”
The Times obtained Jarvis’ email through a public records request for LAPD communications around the May 3 confrontation, which began after DHS agents drove their vehicles into a protest crowd.
The incident enraged activists and alarmed legal experts, who said the federal agents appeared to have overstepped their authority.
Experts said such coordination should already have been established, especially after the deployment of federal agents to protests during the Trump administration raised similar concerns.
John Sandweg, a former acting general counsel of DHS, said the “cardinal rule” for federal agencies during such events “is that you just don’t want to make things worse, and you do not want to become the source of the protest.”
Proper coordination between local and federal law enforcement partners in advance of such events is what prevents that, he said, and “it sounds like clearly there was a failure in that regard” in L.A.
But Sandweg also said the “after-the-fact meeting is critically important,” given the problems the incident caused.
On the day of the incident, demonstrators had gathered in downtown L.A. to protest a leaked draft of a Supreme Court decision that would end the federal right to abortion. The final opinion, overturning the Roe vs. Wade decision, was issued by the court the next month.
The demonstration began near the federal courthouse in the 300 block of West 1st Street downtown, where federal agents have jurisdiction to protect federal property. The LAPD had largely remained on the periphery of the protest in an intentional effort to aid the free speech of attendees while avoiding conflict, according to department officials.
Protesters left the courthouse about 7:30 p.m. and moved to Pershing Square, a move the LAPD said its officers assisted. About 8:30 p.m., protest organizers declared the demonstration over. Up to that point, the LAPD said there had been “no incidents of note.”
About 10 minutes later, agents with the Federal Protective Service, an arm of DHS, drove their vehicles into the intersection of 5th and Hill streets and stopped amid dozens of protesters who were departing the park and spilling into the street.
Video from the scene showed protesters banging on the hoods and trunks of the FPS officers’ cars. As the federal agents got out of their cars, protesters began taunting them; the agents responded by shoving protesters and screaming at them to “back up.”
When LAPD officers rushed in to help the agents, the situation became more volatile. Protesters screamed at the LAPD officers and police officers struck protesters with batons.
LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Oreb, head of the Central Bureau, emailed a recap of the events to other top commanders that night. He wrote that LAPD officers were monitoring the demonstrators at 5th and Hill “when they observed a unit from Homeland Security attempt to drive through the intersection using their lights and sirens.”
The next portion of Oreb’s email was redacted by the LAPD prior to release to The Times.
LAPD officers declared an unlawful assembly and began clearing the streets. They tried to arrest at least one protester for vandalism, but others in the crowd resisted and the person escaped. One LAPD officer was injured, and there were “multiple uses of force (baton strikes)” on protesters, Oreb wrote.
At 5:27 a.m. the next day, LAPD Chief Michel Moore forwarded Oreb’s write-up to his top command, along with “a couple asks” — which were all redacted. At 5:41 a.m., Moore forwarded Oreb’s recap to Reuben Wilson, the deputy mayor for public safety, and Richard Tefank, the executive director of the Los Angeles Police Commission. He noted that the LAPD’s Central Bureau “did well in prep and initial response” — before adding something else about the federal response. That section was also redacted.
LAPD officials told The Times that day that the department had not requested assistance from DHS and that its officers had not been working in conjunction with the federal officers involved in the conflict.
DHS officials told The Times that the Federal Protective Service was “conducting a review of this incident and the actions of any DHS personnel involved.” An FPS spokesman said this week that he had no update on that review.
The meeting between LAPD and federal officials was held a week after the protest, on May 11, at the request of the LAPD.
Jarvis’ email outlined the “talking points” from the meeting that same day.
In addition to framing the appropriate “posture” of federal agents in the street and requesting that they inform the LAPD of their movements around big protests, the email called for the LAPD to facilitate those movements and suggested the federal agencies provide liaisons to the LAPD command post during such events.
Capt. Kelly Muniz, an LAPD spokeswoman, said the meeting did not produce a formal agreement but “refreshed the expectations” of the LAPD and its federal partners “so there is clear understanding going forward.”
Rob Sperling, the FPS spokesman, confirmed service officials attended the meeting and said the points outlined in Jarvis’ email were “accurate.”
The U.S. Marshals Service, which also had staff at the meeting, declined to comment. Other federal officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Sandweg said the points outlined in Jarvis’ email were “basic, common sense” rules of the road for federal and local law enforcement partners. They speak to the shared desire for the locals to take the lead at protests, he said, and for federal agents — who are not always well trained on civil unrest and de-escalation — to provide support only.
“When you’re deploying agencies that aren’t trained for this kind of environment, bad things can happen,” he said. “It’s the streets of L.A. It’s the LAPD’s responsibility.”
He said he viewed the meeting as potentially speaking to frustrations from both sides about a lack of communication during protests, and during a time of “heightened sensitivities” about federal overreach.
“The Biden administration does not want to be seen as replicating the use of DHS or federal law enforcement generally to quell protesters,” he said. “That’s the last thing the administration wants.”
Karen Pita Loor, associate clinical professor at Boston University‘s School of Law, said the incident was another example of the presence of police escalating tensions at protests — a dynamic that she said she has found repeatedly in her research into the nation’s racial justice protests of 2020.
From the emails about the May 3 incident, Loor said, it seemed like LAPD officials were “basically telling these federal agents to back off,” perhaps based on lessons the LAPD learned from its own mistakes policing protests in recent years.
And that, she said, would be appropriate.
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