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Police watched from a distance as Black Lives Matter marched through Inglewood; mayor says it worked

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Hundreds of Black Lives Matter demonstrators shut down the 405 Freeway in Inglewood on Sunday, July 11, 2016.

Something was missing Sunday night when more than 1,000 people marched through the streets of Inglewood as part of a Black Lives Matter protest against police violence.

There were no police officers in the middle of the action, no rows of cruisers trying to block where the protesters could move. In fact, demonstrators themselves were seen directing traffic around La Cienega Boulevard and Manchester Avenue, where the crowd had gathered. That prompted some television anchors covering the story to question where the police were.

The hands-off approach was by design, Inglewood officials said. Police and city leaders decided that they would keep their distance from marchers as long as they stayed peaceful and orderly.

Mayor James T. Butts, a former police chief of Santa Monica, said the “traditional” approach of police in riot gear carrying batons and flanked by heavy armored vehicles can be counterproductive.

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“Here’s what it does – it makes it more media-worthy,” Butts said. “It tends to amp up the protesters, it makes them tend to feel like they’re under siege and things are more volatile.”

The killings of two black men at the hands of police in Minnesota and Louisiana – along with the massacre in Dallas that left five police officers dead – have left both law enforcement and activists searching for the right approach to demonstrations. Since the Black Lives Matter movement began just two years ago, police agencies have tried different tactics and yielded varying results.

Heated protests in Los Angeles resulted in large-scale arrests, with some demonstrators blocking traffic and allegedly throwing objects at officers. But as in Inglewood, the Los Angeles Police Department has also tried to give protesters a wider berth, as long as they remain peaceful.

“There are many things from a tactical standpoint we try to do. But the bottom line is we are trying to not amplify people’s anxiety,” said LAPD Deputy Chief Bill Scott, who oversees the South Bureau. “That means we’re not going to put on protective equipment unless we have to. We are not going to helmet up unless someone starts throwing rocks.”

The LAPD, like other departments, tries to communicate beforehand with protest organizers to try to ease tensions and come up with a game plan.

LAPD Capt. Andrew Neiman said sometimes officials decide it makes more sense to allow protesters to block streets – even if that causes traffic headaches – than to force confrontation.

“We’ve learned from the past sometimes a public protest that disrupts and interferes with overall public’s free movement is in the interest of public safety. Letting protesters stay on a road is better than a use of force,” he said.

In recent months, activists have taken their criticism of the LAPD into Police Commission meetings, frequently interrupting proceedings and chanting. Several arrests have been made there.

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LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said that in the wake of last week’s violence, the department was “trying not to become the issue” while working to ease tensions. He cited a joint news conference Friday in which he and Mayor Eric Garcetti called for peace with rappers Snoop Dogg and The Game.

Officials in Inglewood said their approach Sunday night was also designed to keep tensions at a minimum.

In the end, the protest remained peaceful, and no arrests were made. At one point, some protesters walked on the 405 Freeway and blocked traffic in both directions. About 10 minutes later, the protesters left the freeway, and the California Highway Patrol officers stood guard near onramps. But Inglewood police remained at some distance until the protesters went home.

Butts said some police were monitoring the situation a few blocks away but saw no need to get closer.

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Police stationed units near the protests and tried to direct traffic away, Butts said. Two mobile forces that were “45 seconds to one minute away” were at the ready in case the demonstrations escalated, he said. Other officers were “strategically placed” to cover high-ground positions, he said.

“Does this mean we’ll respond that way every time? No. There is no one-size-fits-all approach,” he said.

Melina Abdullah, a Cal State L.A. professor and prominent member of the local Black Lives Matter movement, said she was surprised by the reserve shown in Inglewood.

It “was very different,” she said.

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In any case, the scene in Inglewood offered a sharp contrast of a widely circulated image of Baton Rouge police officers in riot gear and helmets confronting a female protester wearing a simple dress.

Law enforcement agencies in the Bay Area – also a scene of numerous Black Lives Matter protests – are also trying to find the right response to demonstrations.

On Thursday, about 1,000 demonstrators closed down the 880 Freeway in Oakland for hours.

California Highway Patrol Officer John Fransen said his agency didn’t rush to reopen the road.

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“We had to make sure we had the appropriate resources on hand to ensure everyone stayed safe,” he said. “That is our primary goal. In those terms, this operation was a successful approach. Everyone was safe here at the end of the night. It may have taken a while longer than in other prior situations.”

CHP Capt. Joshua Ehlers said protests generally become more dangerous when they reach the freeway.

“We have to be measured with how we respond to these folks. To send several officers into a crowd with a mob mentality … we’ve seen bricks, knives and guns up there,” Ehlers said. “In light of Dallas, we don’t always know what we’re dealing with. The danger level, in all honesty, has gone up.”

joseph.serna@latimes.com

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richard.winton@latimes.com

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UPDATES:

8:45 p.m.: This post has been updated to add a reference to a viral photo of Baton Rouge police confronting a woman.

7:19 p.m.: This post has been updated throughout with new details.

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This post was originally published at 3:37 p.m.


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