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As LAPD braces for Inauguration Day protests, some question police tactics during past demonstrations

Sen. Kamala Harris is set to speak at the Women’s March on Washington the next day.

As Los Angeles braces for a fresh wave of protests Friday when Donald Trump becomes the nation’s 45th president, the city’s police department will face a familiar challenge: how to balance protesters’ constitutional rights with public safety.

The LAPD, which has long been scrutinized over its handling of large demonstrations, drew renewed attention after November’s presidential election, when more people were arrested in L.A. than in other cities that also saw large — and sometimes more violent — outbursts. More than 460 people were arrested during demonstrations that lasted from election day to Nov. 12.

The department defended the approach, saying police had to take action when people broke the law or posed a risk to public safety. But the high arrest tally troubled some civil liberties advocates who worry the LAPD is too quick to use handcuffs to control demonstrators.

Now, all eyes are on Inauguration Day.

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The LAPD has issued five permits for protests around the downtown area Friday morning, and police anticipate other unauthorized events could also arise. A women’s rights march planned for Saturday, in conjunction with a similar event in Washington, will also likely draw a throng of protesters to the streets.

LAPD Assistant Chief Michel Moore said he considers arrests a “last resort” when handling protests. He said he hopes better communication between police and protesters can help keep people out of handcuffs, but he warned that could change if pockets of the crowds grow unruly.

“It really is pretty simple: When people start vandalizing cars or other property, that’s not going to be facilitated,” he said.

Moore praised officers for showing restraint when interacting with demonstrators, noting that postelection clashes between police and protesters were much uglier in other cities.

Still, the number of arrests made by the LAPD far surpassed other cities’ totals. Officers in New York City recorded 79 arrests the week of the election, despite dealing with massive crowds outside of Trump Tower. Oakland police arrested nearly 60 people — and deployed tear gas — during protests where authorities say Molotov cocktails were thrown at officers. Portland police arrested more than 100 people, and Seattle police said they only made two arrests during postelection protests.

Two years earlier, Los Angeles also led the country in arrests made during another string of national protests. When protesters flooded streets in November 2014, furious over the decision not to indict the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the LAPD arrested 323 people, exceeding arrests in cities that saw rioting and violence. L.A. prosecutors declined to file criminal charges against the majority of those arrested, bolstering complaints from critics that the detentions were an overreaction.

Moore acknowledged the arrest numbers were high but said the action was a necessary response to unlawfulness.

“When you see people in a group and they’re committing acts of vandalism or assaults, that group should be going home,” he said. “If you’re a member of that group, you should get out of that group. Come back another day, come back to another event. But that’s the wrong group to be a member of.”

Carol Sobel, a civil rights attorney who has sued the LAPD over its response to protests in the past, said police cannot treat an entire group of protesters the same based on the actions of a few.

“The vandalism has to permeate the entire group, or a significant portion of the group. We’ve been through this before,” she said. “You can’t arrest everyone just because some people at the back of a march do something.”

Sobel said she has been in contact with nearly 100 protesters who were arrested last fall. Many were detained in Grand Park on Nov. 11 and told The Times they were either confused by, or simply did not hear, the so-called “dispersal order” from the LAPD telling them to leave a nearby street.

The marchers remained largely peaceful in the early portions of the evening, but grew more unruly as the clock crept toward midnight, producing tense moments. One man was arrested for throwing a thermos at police, and another sparked a brief standoff with officers after attempting to spray paint a police cruiser. Several news vans and downtown buildings were vandalized during the week.

Eric Brown, a 40-year-old producer from Mar Vista who was arrested in Grand Park, said he sat down to rest after the hours-long march that night. Within minutes, he was one of dozens of people who found themselves surrounded by officers.

“I saw all the police in their full riot gear start to encircle, and then I’m like ‘OK, it looks like it’s time to go.’ I tried to leave, and I wasn’t allowed to leave,” Brown said. “They kept saying ‘OK, you had your chance.’ ”

Gail Langer Reznik, a 59-year-old paralegal from Calabasas, also said most protesters she saw were trying to leave when the LAPD stopped their attempts to exit the park.

“People were standing. They weren’t moving. No one was doing anything aggressively,” said Reznik, who was arrested alongside her daughter.

Moore, who declined to comment on the specifics of the encounter because he was not at Grand Park that night, said the LAPD generally tries to ensure the dispersal orders are given from various locations in multiple languages and can be heard by officers on the other side of a crowd. He noted that protesters can also be arrested for other violations, such as blocking a roadway.

The bulk of the arrests at postelection protests were for allegedly obstructing a road or sidewalk, according to data provided by the LAPD.

While the Los Angeles protesters may have gained notoriety for blocking a portion of the 101 Freeway, rallies in Portland, Ore., were among the most violent that erupted after the election. Officers there used flash-bang grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets to clear crowds after vandals smashed windows, set fires and damaged cars. During another demonstration, a protester was shot by a motorist during a verbal altercation on a bridge.

“Arresting people in a crowd-control situation is a heavy lift for an organization. It takes a lot of time and paperwork, and it’s not fun,” Sgt. Pete Simpson, a Portland police spokesman, said of the 100-plus arrests his department made. “There’s no joy in arresting a bunch of people, because it is a lot of work. But it’s a reality that sometimes we’re forced into.”

For this week’s inaugural events, Moore said the LAPD has been in communication with some protest organizers, who agreed to combine planned marches in order to keep the events more contained.

“They’ve worked with us to consolidate some of their marches so they’re more easily facilitated, instead of being scattered in 15 different directions,” he said. “That’s helpful for us. It’s helpful for them. It improves public safety.”

Still, some civil liberties advocates say the city needs to do more to allow for peaceful protest, especially at night. Sobel conceded that the department has been less violent in crowd-control situations in recent years, but she argued that some city ordinances and police tactics effectively outlaw protest.

“There is no place that people can demonstrate in the city of Los Angeles after midnight, because parks close,” she said. “If you want to have a 24-hour peaceful vigil, even if you had Mahatma Gandhi and his followers … he’d be arrested.”

james.queally@latimes.com

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT for crime and police news in California.

kate.mather@latimes.com

Follow @katemather on Twitter.

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