Raising Cain Over Cops Without Helmets

Some say LAPD decision to go without gear put police at unnecessary risk

A kinder, gentler approach to policing at a recent political protest in Los Angeles has sparked a much different debate than those involving LAPD behavior during past demonstrations.

Sometimes criticized for transforming marches into melees by showing up clad in full riot gear, this time the LAPD did something quite different by showing up to a pro-Palestinian demonstration sans riot helmets and face shields. And, as a result, the upper echelons of the world-class force now find themselves pilloried for supposedly being delinquently diplomatic.

The guy who calls himself Jack Dunphy (it's the pseudonym used on Patterico's Pontifications by a guest blogger who claims to be a veteran cop) says the decision last Saturday to order officers not to wear their helmets was "sadly typical for some in the department's upper ranks."

The order, says Dunphy, was made by a senior commanding officer in the LAPD's West Bureau because the gear was considered "too intimidating."

At issue is an injury suffered that day by an officer struck in the head with a sign. The wound, it appears, was serious enough to warrant treatment at Cedars Sinai Hospital, and that it might have been avoided had the officer been wearing a helmet is further fueling the debate.

Cardboard signs, some stapled to narrow wooden planks, are plainly visible in a YouTube video of the protest . The amateur footage shows officers with exposed noggins engaging the crowd with batons at the ready. Although a minor skirmish ensues about halfway through, it's difficult to tell who does what to whom, or why. Certainly nothing in the video proves anything other than the potential such situations have to go very bad in an instant.

Having witnessed the stampede that resulted when cops in full riot gear and on horseback forcibly dispersed a crowd outside the 2000 Democratic National Convention downtown, experience tells me it only takes one or two fools (cops, or not) to turn a group of thousands into an ugly mob. And, as far as the riot gear goes, the hundreds of helmets were less intimidating than the rubber bullet that struck me. But it's that event, and a few infamous others, that have given the LAPD, and the City of Los Angeles, a reputation that only heightens tensions at every demonstration LA cops are called upon to police.

Paul Weber, president of the cop's union, told Los Angeles Times blogger/writer Andrew Blankstein that it doesn't matter what city a protest or march occurs in, "at demonstrations you wear safety equipment."

Regardless, Chief William Bratton seems to be adjusting his department's application of such one-size-fits-all responses, and has been hitting his stride as of late in the effort to improve the LAPD's reputation.

Besides being recognized for his department's cool-handed policing of the Prop 8 protests, Bratton walked the walk when he actually showed up at the Israeli Consulate this week to personally demand that the group disperse peacefully to avoid arrest, which they did.

It's too early to tell if all this means the LAPD has found a responsible midpoint that avoids the self-fullfilling effects of preemptive ferocity, without being so tactful as to put officers at unreasonable risk. But, at the very least, it seems the department is trying.

-- TJ Sullivan

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