After 42 Years of Police Reform, LAPD Video Still Blames "Agitators"

The LAPD is showing a videotaped report on May Day at MacArthur Park to city officials, the media and all uniformed officers in which a handful of "agitators" are blamed for prompting a breakdown of command and control that day. The video presentation cites some twenty "anarchists" or "agitators" 29 times, and mentions "rocks and bottles" being thrown at police 32 times. There are only two images of reporters being attacked by police, and two brief shots of demonstrators being beaten, one while holding an American flag.

Yet police fired 144 rounds of "non-lethal" ammunition, including 70 37-mm projectiles, 40 40mm "sponge" rounds, and 34 12-gauge "supersock" rounds. At 20 alleged "anarchists" and "agitators"? Or to clear the park of 6,000 people?

Only five persons were arrested, none on serious charges. No physical evidence has been presented thus far. Nor has any explanation been offered for the "breakdown" of command and control. The investigation continues.

But from the opening video presentation, it appeared that the police decided to declare the entire protest an "unlawful assembly" using the "agitators" as a pretext. The LAPD declaration was in English, not Spanish. Then the police chose to push a small group of militant protestors into the park, then cleared thousands of people from the entire area. Numerous media in the path of the police were abruptly pushed, insulted, beaten and knocked down while peacefully carrying out their journalistic mission.

But the video shows nothing from the perspective of the street protestors, nor the estimated 6,000 who were inside the park, or the scores of media personnel who took film of themselves and others being beaten. Where did all that footage go? The entire video presentation is from the perspective of a bulked-up, armored, helmeted, weapon-wielding police officer peering through a visor at a small number of shouting demonstrators.

In a rational investigation, the police wouldn't be leading the investigation of themselves. But this is LA, where who polices the police remains an unsettled issue after many decades. The police perspective and accompanying evidence should be introduced as one version of the truth. Yet despite the layers of reform piled on the LAPD since 1965, the video demonstrates how much the LAPD still controls investigations of itself and, perhaps more important, frames the public perception of reality.

Because of the beatings of reporters, this case is likely to be investigated by multiple sources, including the Council, the Inspector General, and the media themselves. But the LAPD will largely frame the investigation, which may take months. The shield they wear becomes a shield of secrecy and fraternity within.

The police commission could vote to launch an independent investigation. Its Inspector General can audit the ongoing investigation by the LAPD. The IG has 'the greater charter to examine and audit the Department in any respect, including the undertaking of highly sensitive investigations when so directed by the Commission." [Bobb report, May 1996, p. 51]#

TOM HAYDEN is a former state senator and author of Street Wars [New Press, 2005]