Judging Bratton, and the LAPD

MARC COOPER is an LA Weekly columnist and contributing editor to the Nation. He is a visiting professor of journalism and associate director of the Institute for Justice and Journalism at the USC Anne

NO DOUBT many of the immigrants who witnessed the violent conclusion of Tuesday’s rally in MacArthur Park thought it was deja vu all over again. Tear gas, gunfire and clubbings by unaccountable and poorly trained police have all been sadly common realities in the day-to-day political rough-and-tumble south of the border.

But the uniformed forces that charged into the MacArthur Park rally with clubs a-swinging and firing more than 200 rounds of foam bullets were hardly a strongman’s brutish carabineros. These were, instead, the highly trained and well-educated officers of Chief William J. Bratton’s LAPD.

With Bratton’s training academy now using the mistakes of the past as teaching points, and with the department leadership having demonstrated an ongoing commitment to remolding the once-notorious traditional internal culture of the LAPD, a return to what seems like the bad old days of the Daryl Gates era just wasn’t supposed to happen.

Indeed, during last year’s pro-immigration-reform marches — several times the magnitude of this week’s rallies — the LAPD maintained a relaxed and laid-back posture. Most of the rank-and-file and command staff I interviewed during those events seemed to be downright happy with their assignment. Whatever preparations the LAPD had made to suppress any violent outbreaks were well hidden.

All of this made Tuesday’s high-profile police presence and the heavy-handed response even more baffling and unexpected.

In recent years, MacArthur Park has become a favorite venue for fight-the-cops fringe groups, and that might explain why the police approached the gathering there with such an aggressive attitude. Rally organizers were keeping an eye out for the usual suspects who actively seeking confrontation. It’s a logical assumption that the LAPD had similar intelligence about just such a possible provocation.

Whether or not that’s the case, when perhaps 50 to 100 (Bratton’s estimate) self-styled revolutionaries, some with bandanas covering their faces, in fact did split off from the peaceful rally, blocking the streets and peppering the nearby lines of riot-ready police with epithets and water bottles, the fuse was lighted. There are many and conflicting versions of exactly what happened. But there’s no reason not to believe your eyes — or in this case, the video. There was clearly overreaction and indiscriminate use of force employed by the LAPD in shutting down the rally.

The firing of foam bullets at anyone except an identified violent target is against LAPD rules, and it is as unacceptable as sending a squad of baton-swinging cops into a park you know is loaded with families and children. Bratton admitted that none of the arrests made were related to the rounds that were fired. The sophisticated crowd-control training conducted at the academy went down the tubes as a “protect your fellow officer at all costs” frenzy apparently spread through the ranks.

When newspeople, hardly the most vulnerable victims of what transpired, get pushed, manhandled and in some cases struck with clubs, it’s a red flag that the police action has spun dangerously out of control. Reporters were not unintended or casual victims caught in some chaotic give-and-take, as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has rather disingenuously suggested in his public statements. Firsthand accounts and numerous videos clearly show police officers roughing up journalists even as they unmistakably identified themselves as legitimate media (as if holding a $30,000 camera on your shoulder isn’t proof enough).

To Bratton’s credit, he was quick to arrive on the scene and to cancel his planned meet-up with the mayor in Central America. His day-after statement characterizing at least some of the actions carried out by his troops as “disturbing” and “inappropriate” is a refreshing departure from the sort of bunker-mentality denial that once prevailed at Parker Center.

Three Los Angeles Police Department and Police Commission investigations have been launched. They should not be prejudged, but it seems common sense that a more independent probe would inspire more confidence. Bratton’s decision Thursday to ask the FBI to launch an independent investigation comes as a needed reminder that cops should be held as accountable as the rest of us when they break the law.

Bratton’s term is up for renewal, and how he resolves this controversy should be closely scrutinized. His tenure was supposed to take us forward, not back to a past we’d all like to forget. Saying the right things about Tuesday’s melee is a start. Bringing in the FBI is a start. But only a start. Doing the right thing in the days to come, and effectively punishing those responsible for Tuesday’s swing-a-thon, would be the most appropriate way to end his first term.