Flaws in LAPD responses to intense George Floyd protests reopened old community wounds

Multiple reviews have found the Los Angeles Police Department lacked clear lines of command and control that led to confusion in the ranks as the agency attempted to manage a near-citywide revolt over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May and June 2020.

Rank-and-file officers and their commanders both did not understand how to deal with protesters furious at police in general over killings of Black people, as well as deaths at the hands of LAPD officers over the last few years. And many lacked training in how to approach anti-police protests that have increased in intensity as a result.

Those were some of the findings of three groups that for nearly a year conducted expansive reviews of LAPD’s protest response. All three — an external National Police Foundation report, an internal LAPD report and another commissioned by the City Council — officially presented their findings to the Los Angeles Police Commission on Tuesday.

The reports presented a picture of a department that struggled to figure out how to provide safety at protests that were in effect a referendum on their own conduct, without violating the civil rights of demonstrators.

“That’s a component that isn’t talked about,” said Sandy Jo MacArthur, a former LAPD assistant chief.

MacArthur worked on the City Council-commissioned report with Gerald Chaleff, another LAPD veteran. Their findings were among the most critical of LAPD’s response.

“The focus has been protecting First Amendment rights, making sure there’s a way to protest peacefully,” she said. “But we never really shifted in terms of when we’re addressing large groups of officers, how should they be handing themselves when they’re the focus.”

Despite years of a growing, nationwide movement — started in some respect during the protests of 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri after the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer there — the report authors and some commissioners said they were concerned police aren’t learning their lessons of how not to respond.

Frank Schaub, one of the report authors for the National Police Foundation, said police showing up in tactical gear after reports of violence led to heightened responses from protesters. He said the move backfired: Seeing police decked out in military-like gear only primed demonstrators to expect more violence.

Schaub said police aren’t doing enough to understand why many residents of L.A. are upset.

“There has to be a recognition of trauma,” he said. “There is very deep-seated trauma in these communities.”

But Schaub said LAPD is not understanding how its own officers are looking at these protests, either. He said in surveys of officers, morale has plummeted.

He said many of these officers and their families are traumatized, too. And that makes for a volatile mix when police are responding to the protests against them. He said department and city leaders need to find ways to open up conversations between police and community members to prevent further violence.

“We need some real research around the level of trauma within the department,” Schaub said. “Otherwise there’s the potential the scab gets ripped off every time there’s an event.”

Black Lives Matter filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of protesters over claims of brutal treatment at the hands of police. Thousands of people were cuffed with zip-ties and left to sit on the street or in buses for hours without access to water or bathrooms.

LAPD internal investigators are still working through hundreds of individual complaints of abuse. Deputy Chief Robert Marino said Tuesday several of the complaints they were investigating had turned into lawsuits, and so were unresolved.

And while police focused on large groups of protesters, crews of burglars operated with hardly any trouble, stealing around $170 million worth of items from unattended stores, including $1 million in prescription drugs, according to LAPD’s internal report.

Chief of Police Michel Moore said he ordered a department-wide retraining after last year’s protests. He said officers reduced their uses of force in subsequent public demonstrations as a result.

Commissioners and members of the public who called in to Tuesday’s meeting questioned whether anything had really changed, however.

“This body is rotten to the core,” said Hamid Khan, the founder of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, a watchdog group and frequent department critic. “You can’t salvage this. You can’t keep on embalming this body.”

Commissioner William Briggs asked the report authors whether LAPD should consider stopping the use of its 40 millimeter foam baton launcher in crowd control situations.

In the report for the City Council, Chaleff criticized LAPD for giving most officers only two hours of training with the device. He said LAPD should not allow officers without specialized training to use it. Protesters made claims of injuries from officers firing the hard-hitting batons into crowds wildly.

Moore said to reporters after the meeting that LAPD would reexamine the use of the 40 millimeter launcher, but that the device would likely stay in the department’s rotation of less-lethal options.

“Officers need a defense weapon other than a firearm,” Moore said, noting that more than 100 officers were also injured in the protests. “But we need to recognize the limitations of the system.”

The commission voted to forward the reports to the City Council. But the five member board will undertake its own review of the reports and present a list of recommendations in two weeks, President Eileen Decker said.

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