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Editorial: South L.A. residents shouldn’t suffer because of the LAPD’s fireworks screw-up

The LAPD's bomb squad vehicle was destroyed after officers miscalculated the weight of illegal fireworks detonated
The LAPD’s bomb squad vehicle was destroyed and nearby properties were damaged after officers miscalculated the weight of illegal fireworks detonated last month in South L.A.
(Los Angeles Times)

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that something went terribly wrong on June 30, when the Los Angeles Police Department decided to detonate illegal fireworks in the middle of a South L.A. neighborhood, and ended up destroying the bomb squad’s armored truck and injuring 17 people.

This week, Chief Michel Moore admitted the blast was the result of human error by LAPD personnel. Bomb squad technicians had grossly miscalculated the weight of devices put into a containment vehicle for safe detonation.

The technicians estimated the weight at 16½ pounds. Federal investigators figure the weight was closer to 42 pounds, Moore said. The containment truck could safely detonate up to 15 pounds of explosive materials for repeated use — or up to 25 pounds for one-time use that would render the truck out-of-service in the future. That’s a big miscalculation.

When officers detonated the fireworks, the force of the explosion was so strong that the containment vehicle collapsed and the 500-pound lid of the detonation chamber shot into a yard a couple of blocks away. Residents said they were thrown by the power of the blast. It blew off doors and broke windows in homes, cars and businesses, leaving shards of glass everywhere. Three properties may have to be rebuilt from the ground up.

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It’s a miracle that nobody was killed, given the severity of the explosion, the resulting damage and the lack of care and caution exhibited by the LAPD.

While Moore has apologized for the LAPD’s mistakes, the incident remains extremely troubling. There’s understandable skepticism in the community. Did the police cut corners on the detonation because it was a working-class immigrant community?

Technicians estimated the weight of the fireworks rather than using a scale to measure them. The LAPD had hours to prepare for the detonation. Yet many residents in the area said they weren’t informed of the risk or they were told they could stay inside their homes rather than evacuate.

Would the police have handled the incident differently in wealthier, whiter West Los Angeles? That question should be answered by independent authorities looking into the explosion. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is conducting an investigation, and the FBI is also looking into the LAPD’s protocols. The owner of the illegal fireworks, Arturo Ceja III, 27, is facing charges of illegally transporting tons of explosives; he was selling the fireworks from his home.

Even as the investigation continues, L.A. leaders have an obligation to provide immediate assistance so impacted residents can repair or replace their property, and begin to heal from the trauma of the explosion. This is not the time to put struggling families through the usual bureaucratic claims and insurance process.

City Atty. Mike Feuer said his office has received 56 claims so far and they’re trying to get them resolved in a day and paid within three days. In the meantime, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office is tapping into his nonprofit to provide 26 families with $2,000 on debit cards so there’s no gap in individuals’ cash flow while trying to deal with the damage. Councilman Curren Price has established a $1 million emergency fund for affected residents using money budgeted to reimagine public safety. Many of the impacted residents were already scraping by and cannot manage the loss of a few days of work because they’re living in a motel or their cars were damaged.

The explosion was bad enough. South L.A. residents shouldn’t be left to suffer because of the LAPD’s terrible mistake.


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