LAPD critics decry May 1 melee as latest example of 'warrior' cop
Sunday, May 13, 2007
Other examples cited were the use of clubs and tear gas on war protesters in 1967 and the Rodney King beating in 1991.
LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Police Department's violent response at the end of an immigrant demonstration is the latest incident highlighting what critics describe as the force's "warrior culture."
It's an ethos that's been on display before -- the use of clubs and tear gas to disperse 15,000 peaceful anti-war protesters in Century City in 1967, the Watts riots in 1965, the Rodney King beating in 1991, the harsh crackdown on demonstrators at the 2000 Democratic National Convention.
Public outcry and inquiries that followed each event haven't deterred some officers from cracking a few kneecaps to assert order, even in front of cameras.
Chief William Bratton's criticism of his department and decision to quickly reassign two high-ranking officers after the immigration rally nearly two weeks ago were roundly applauded, though skeptics say it's not nearly enough to address deep-seated issues that produce violent responses by some officers.
Bratton was appointed in 2002 to steer the LAPD after a rogue anti-gang unit scandalized the department by assaulting and framing people in the tough Rampart district. Dozens of criminal convictions were tossed out as a result of the scandal.
Bratton has since had some success in improving community relations, including his swift action following the May 1 immigration rally violence.
However, skeptics say none of these efforts are enough to address the deep-seated culture that has caused repeated bouts of excessive force.
"The LAPD is a big ocean liner and it will take a long time to turn around," said Joe Domanick, a senior fellow of criminal justice at the University of Southern California's Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism. Bratton "has not focused on the paramilitary culture and us-against-them mentality that seems to still persist in the LAPD."
He said the culture originated during the reign of William H. Parker, hired as chief in 1950, who imagined the city's police force as an urban army.
Domanick said Parker's view was: "We're the only thing standing between chaos and anarchy. We are the professionals. We know better. No one tells us better."
After the King beating, lawyer Warren Christopher, who later became secretary of state, was tapped to lead a commission in dissecting the department.
The Christopher Commission examined five years of reports, police radio communications and hearings and interviews with dozens of residents and police, and found that "a significant number of officers" routinely used excessive force.
"The Department not only failed to deal with the problem group of officers but it often rewarded them with positive evaluations and promotions," according to the report.
Civil rights attorney Connie Rice led a similar investigation after the Rampart scandal and, in a 2000 report, found little had changed.
The anti-gang unit, known as CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums), "developed an independent subculture that embodied a 'war on gangs' where the ends justified their needs,' the report said. "They resisted supervision and control and ignored LAPD's procedures and policies."
Since then, Bratton has had to take a number of actions in response to police use of force.
He restricted police from firing on cars in most cases after officers killed a 13-year-old car theft suspect who rammed a squad car in 2005. In 2004, Bratton banned police from carrying long metal flashlights after video showed a Hispanic police officer using one to repeatedly beat a black suspect who was lying on the ground.
Critics say it will take a lot more to change the LAPD's warrior culture.
Particularly telling of a resistance to change was the department's decision to put Cmdr. Louis Gray in charge of policing the May 1 rally, said National Lawyers Guild attorney Carol Sobel. Gray was the one who gave the order to fire rubber bullets at demonstrators outside the 2000 convention, said Sobel, who said one of the rubber projectiles hit her between the eyes.
"The institutional memory is very short," said Sobel, who worked with police afterward to revise crowd control protocols.
Bob Baker, president of the police union, turned down a request for an interview, but issued a statement defending the police response after the May 1 clash, saying officers responded appropriately when some members of the crowd threw bottles and rocks at police.
"As Chief Bratton says, 'sometimes policing isn't pretty and there is little if any time for reflection and discussion before action,"' Baker said. "... In the coming days it will become clear what transpired. Until then there should be no rush to judgment."