LAPD Says Training Has Improved Treatment of Crowds, Media

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Thursday is May Day, and thousands are expected to turn out in Los Angeles for immigrant rights marches. Last year, a day of peaceful protests ended at L.A.'s MacArthur Park in what's become known as the May Day Melee. L.A. police officers in riot gear clubbed and fired rubber bullets at marchers and journalists. As KPCC's Frank Stoltze reports, the LAPD has been working to prevent a similar incident.

Frank Stoltze: For more than four decades, Mike Hillman's worn the LAPD badge. The deputy chief still cringes when someone asks him about MacArthur Park.

Mike Hillman: I don't ever want this to happen again. This is my organization. This is my city. And what happened here is very frustrating for me.

Stoltze: Hillman, considered one of the nation's foremost experts on crowd control, has spent the last year re-training more than 9,000 LAPD officers. A year ago, riot police pushed thousands of marchers out of MacArthur Park, even though only a handful of people had thrown frozen water bottles at cops.

In his lecture, Hillman urges officers to identify potential troublemakers early. He shows a slide of people wearing hoodies and backpacks at an anti-war protest.

Hillman: These individuals here appear to be individuals that are not connected to either side of it. They could be categorized as persons of interest. Those are the people that you want to spend time focusing on.

Stoltze: This isn't profiling, Hillman says – just good judgment. He encourages officers to introduce themselves to those persons of interest.

Hillman: Walking over to them and saying, "Hi, Mike Hillman, I'm going to be here with you. Want to make sure we protect your First Amendment rights. I'll be with you the rest of the day." Now, it may sound hokey. But what it does is, it tells somebody that we're watching.

Stoltze: His other advisory: Be aggressive in isolating and arresting people who break the law. Last year, police failed to arrest a single person connected to the bottle-throwing that they say prompted them to shut down the march.

[Sound of officer giving orders in training]

Stoltze: Officer Pete Zuniga follows Hillman's lecture with field training on the proper use of a baton. LAPD investigators reported after May Day that cops believed they could hit anyone who failed to follow a dispersal order, even if they were passive. Some officers at this training resist Zuniga's instructions to instead use a baton to gently nudge people and ask them to leave – and arrest them as a last resort.

Metro Officer Pete Zuniga: These are passive, uncooperative demonstrators, for now. Exactly. I don't agree with it, but I do it. Okay, I'm just the messenger. Okay? I don't make policy, here, right? I'm just telling you what they want to do, right? So, don't kill the messenger.

Stoltze: Zuniga says most officers agree with the policy.

Zuniga: The only concern I have is, some of the techniques we're using and we're teaching these guys, they're very perishable. So if you don't practice them and stay on top of them, you're going to lose them or you're gonna get rusty, for lack of a better word. So the department needs to stay on top of the training...

Stoltze: Three years ago, Police Chief Bill Bratton reduced training hours so he could put more cops on the streets. Last May Day forced him to place new emphasis on training.

[Sound of police training]

Stoltze: Most officers won't talk to reporters observing the training session. Luis Reyes does. The 11-year veteran says he's concerned about a new policy that allows reporters to filter through police riot lines. Police hit some reporters last May 1st.

Officer Luis Reyes: I guess now the media is gonna go in through our skirmish line. I just hope some terrorist doesn't pose as the media and blow themself up behind me. That's what I don't want, and that's my concern. Other than that, everything's okay. (laughs)

Stoltze: Media organizations, including the Radio Television News Association, have praised the new policy.

Carol Sobel is a civil rights attorney and police watchdog. Even with the LAPD's new crowd control policies, she's seen problems at demonstrations over the past year.

Carol Sobel: We have police officers at the back of the demonstration who think that people should march at a faster pace than they do. And so it becomes a flashpoint, because the police officers have their patrol cars and their motorcycles and they're nipping at people's heels.

Stoltze: Sobel's representing several people who've sued the LAPD over their behavior in MacArthur Park last May Day. She's kept an eye on Deputy Chief Hillman, who heads a new bureau that handles large demonstrations. So far, she says, he's doing a good job.

Sobel: The problem is there aren't a whole lot of Mike Hillmans in this department.

Stoltze: Hillman predicts his training will change that.