Lakers Riots Embarrass LAPD

"It could have been a lot worse."

So said Los Angeles Police Department Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger of the downtown L.A. melee that followed the Lakers' victory over the Orlando Magic last Sunday. If that's the standard the LAPD is shooting for these days, the city is in big, big trouble.  By the time the last of the Lakers' "fans" were cleared from the streets that night, eight police officers had been injured, three businesses looted, and several cars and transit buses vandalized, all broadcast live from television news helicopters.

You just knew there was a problem with LAPD's response when the ACLU approved of it. Attorney Carol Sobel, who represented plaintiffs who sued the LAPD after the 2007 May Day melee at L.A.'s MacArthur Park, told the Los Angeles Times that the LAPD had learned from its mistakes. "They didn't come out in all their riot gear and I think that helped," Sobel said. "You saw the line officers and it created a different dynamic. They were able to disperse people and do it in a less confrontational manner. They had a presence but they moved out people without the level of confrontation that existed in the past."

Heavens, we wouldn't want to be "confrontational" with anyone looting a store or vandalizing a bus, would we? Perish the thought!

Expressing a dissenting view was Richard Torres, 29. Torres owns a vintage shoe store a few blocks from the Staples Center, and when he saw on television that trouble was brewing after the game he headed downtown. When he arrived at his store he found it had been trashed and that nearly all of his $140,000 in inventory had been looted. Some of the shoes had been set on fire in the street in front of the store. One might speculate that Mr. Torres and the others who had their stores pillaged wish the police had been just a bit more confrontational.

But yes, it could indeed have been worse. As riots go, it was small potatoes. But that's hardly cause to characterize as a triumph what was in reality an embarrassment for the LAPD. "In their Monday morning analysis," said the Los Angeles Times, "police commanders declared the [non-confrontational] approach a success, limiting injuries and property damage, and showing the public that the department could restrain the use of force."

Sorry, but I'm not buying it. And neither should you, because no matter how Assistant Chief Paysinger and the rest of the brass tried to spin it in the press, everyone in the LAPD, from Chief William Bratton down to the greenest rookie, knows we got caught with our pants down that night.

But why were we so unprepared? There are three answers, all of them related to one another: poor planning, timidity, and lack of leadership in the upper ranks of the LAPD. First, as to the planning, the Lakers' playoff schedule was known for weeks in advance, giving LAPD commanders ample time to deploy sufficient officers to deal with any trouble that might have followed a Laker victory or defeat. All 21 patrol divisions were told to staff heavily in the final week of the deployment period that ended on June 20. Incredibly, very few of those additional officers were pre-deployed downtown for what turned out to be the final Laker game on June 14. When the trouble began, the officers on hand were overmatched, and reinforcements had to be brought in from the far corners of the city. Once they arrived, there was a lack of coordination that might have been avoided had they been assembled prior to the game's end.

Even more inexcusable is the fact that the officers most adept at crowd control (i.e., those assigned to the elite Metropolitan Division) were all given the day off on June 14. Metropolitan Division supervisors had suggested they change their schedule so as to be available in the event of a Laker victory Sunday, but the offer was declined at a higher level of the chain of command. This brings us to the timidity factor. Recall that it was Metropolitan Division officers who were involved in the May Day incident of 2007 (discussed here and here). A deputy chief was sacked in the wake of that incident, and despite the extensive training those officers have received in the two years since, some LAPD commanders are still reluctant to deploy them in those situations they are best trained to handle. Believe it or not, there are some in the highest ranks of the LAPD who would rather see stores looted and cars vandalized than see their own careers jeopardized by an incident that might in any way resemble what happened in MacArthur Park two years ago.

Such is the dearth of true leadership in the current Los Angeles Police Department, where experience behind a desk is more highly prized than actual police work when it comes time to evaluate candidates for promotion. Only a handful of those at the rank of captain and higher in the LAPD have the experience and leadership skills required to handle the kind of rapidly evolving situation as was seen near the Staples Center on June 14. None of them were there that night, as was evident from the poor performance shown to the world on television.

This takes nothing away from the officers who were there to face down those labeled by Chief Bratton as the "knuckleheads" responsible for the trouble. Of the patrol officers who did respond to Sunday's melee, few had had any meaningful crowd control training, and almost none had had any real-world experience on a skirmish line trying to move a hostile crowd. And it's impossible for a cop on a skirmish line or a sergeant or lieutenant standing behind it to have an overall picture of what's occurring in the surrounding neighborhood. Whoever was in charge that night failed to react and deploy officers so as to prevent splinter groups from doing the damage they did. Thus we were left with the sight of a line of helmeted officers blocking an empty street and waiting for direction even as stores were being looted a few blocks away. Bratton and his underlings called it a success, but now you know better.

Yes, it could have been worse.  But it could have been -- and should have been -- a whole lot better.