Occupy LA report card: Was LAPD fair in evicting protesters?

Police evicted Occupy LA protesters Wednesday, and while some occupiers said the 1,400-strong force was 'overkill,' LAPD has gotten high marks for its communication and restraint. 

Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS
Police in hazmat suits look at protesters on a tree as the Occupy LA encampment is dismantled outside City Hall in Los Angeles Wednesday.

To Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the morning operation that ousted Occupy Los Angeles protesters from their encampment Wednesday “was the finest hour in the history of the Los Angeles Police Department."

"I couldn’t be prouder of the men and women of this force,” he said at a press conference Wednesday. “This was without question an indication of what we mean when we talk about constitutional policing, when we talk about putting as much effort into serving as protecting.” 

To Lisa Clapier, spokeswoman for the protest group, which had boasted the largest remaining Occupy movement encampment in the US, the 1,400 police in riot and biohazard gear – with reinforcements at City Hall and Dodger Stadium – "was overkill."

"They didn’t need to send in 1,400 police with riot gear and close down seven city blocks,” she says. The biohazard gear was because the police were swabbing every arrested protester – about 292 at last count – for DNA and wanted to protect themselves, Ms. Clapier adds.

Mayor Villaraigosa said the operation came off “without injury to any police or protesters.” Clapier claims there was at least one head injury and that the police fired rubber bullets into the trees to roust those trying to escape eviction.

Opposing accounts notwithstanding, the incident underscores what many observers say has been a unique characteristic of the Occupy LA encampment. From its inception on Oct. 1, it has enjoyed unparalleled cooperation and communication with police, allowing Wednesday night's eviction to avoid scenes of rioting, tear gas, and pepper spray that marked police actions in Denver; Seattle; Oakland, Calif.; and on the campus of the University of California, Davis.

“LAPD has shown significantly for all to see that the idea of community policing means that both police and citizens are actually on the same side,” says Joel Jacobsen, assistant attorney general, criminal appeals division for New Mexico. “The whole world saw clearly on video how the hostile, paramilitary approach by the police at UC Davis was counterproductive.”

Villaraigosa, the police, and City Hall took an accommodating approach to the occupiers from the outset, including a formal resolution that allowed protesters to bypass the usual rules of no sleeping on public property. Police Chief Charlie Beck and city council members visited the camp daily to converse with occupiers.

“They’ve been very kind to us,” says occupier Joe Briones. “So much so that we voted down the idea of having a committee on police brutality, because the majority felt we didn’t need one.”

"I said that here in L.A. we'd chart a different path, and we did," said Villaraigosa, who had a career as a labor organizer before becoming mayor.

At its height, the Occupy LA encampment had some 500 tents and 800 permanent residents. But last week, Villaraigosa began preparing the encampment for the news that it would have to be dismantled, because city officials complained of crime, sanitation problems, and property damage.

The mayor initially set an eviction deadline of 12:01 a.m. Monday, but city officials held off enforcing it for 48 hours in the hope protesters would drift away on their own.

The tactic seemed to pay off. The number of protesters in City Hall park diminished sharply after the eviction announcement last week. The crowd that remained Wednesday was boisterous but mostly peaceful, with reports of only minor initial scuffles with police. The lion’s share of the eviction took just four hours.

Although some protesters complained that police used excessive force, experts have praised Villaraigosa for his evenhanded approach.

“The city did an exemplary job of balancing two sets of rights,” says Robert Pugsley, law professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. “The mayor had an absolute right to clear it, because for every free speech right to assembly, there is the overriding concern for public safety.”

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