What I Saw at the Lakers Riots

So that’s what happened. The police radio frequencies soon were filled with reports of looting here and burning there and general mayhem everywhere. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck was there at the Staples Center along with many of his top command staff, and they all looked rather stricken when it became apparent that their master plan, months in the making and forged by the department’s failure at the same event last year, was found wanting.

In addition to the 500 or so police officers already on hand near the arena, there were hundreds more standing by at command posts a few miles away, many no doubt hoping for a Boston comeback as the game neared its end. But by the time the decision was made to call in these reinforcements, about ten minutes after the final buzzer, the rampage was already well under way.  Why all those extra officers hadn’t been posted in crucial spots well prior to the end of the game is a deep mystery, one that I’m keen to hear explained.

What’s more, once those reinforcements were finally summoned into downtown, they had to compete for space on the roads with those basketball fans who, having seen the disturbances getting started, were trying their best to leave. One unlucky man, driving a Lamborghini or some such exotic sports car, watched through the windshield in helpless horror as a few of the revelers selected his expensive machine, with its low profile and rakish lines, as the ideal impromptu dance floor. Imagine the conversation with the insurance man that must have taken place on Friday.

You might have thought that with the chief of police and all those command officers present that the operation would have been run more smoothly. If that was indeed your expectation you are not a police officer, certainly not one with the LAPD. Police officers everywhere know, and LAPD officers might know best of all, that the degree of success in any tactical operation is in inverse proportion to the number of command officers present. Seldom has this proven more true than in downtown Los Angeles Thursday evening. I even saw, while running to one trouble spot with my colleagues, an assistant chief who was also running, but in the opposite direction. (It was just as well; he only would have been in the way.)

Even with the arrival of the additional officers, the situation remained chaotic for more than an hour and a half. Commanders gave orders that were sometimes nonsensical, conflicting, or both. “Mobile field forces” of fifty or more officers were dispatched to violent outbreaks that could have been suppressed with ten or even fewer. In one instance, two entire mobile field forces were sent to an intersection at the report of a riotous group. And there followed the amusing but embarrassing spectacle of more than one hundred officers speeding to that intersection, alighting from their cars, and forming a skirmish line across a six-lane street, all for the purpose of  chasing away a crowd that had dispersed at the appearance of the first police car. Incredibly, the lieutenant in charge of the group still went ahead with the prescribed measures he had long ago read in some training bulletin: he had those hundred cops line up abreast and march up the street to clear away people who had fled five minutes earlier.

It was readily apparent to those of us manning the skirmish lines that the situation called for breaking down the mobile field forces into smaller, more nimble squads that could fan out across downtown and roam at will to confront those small groups of drunken hooligans who were making life miserable not only for downtown residents and merchants but also for the many decent fans who were merely trying to escape in one piece.  But by the time that order came, near midnight, the troubles had largely petered out on their own.

When things got out of hand after last year’s championship, the mayor and the LAPD brass surveyed the damage and said it could have been worse. They’re saying the same thing this year.  It’s true, as far as it goes, but it’s hardly a goal to aspire to.

I hope the Lakers lose every game next year.