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LA police promise investigation into immigration rally clash

Police Chief William J Bratton has promised an investigation into the conduct of police who dispersed an immigration rally using force and rubber bullets.

world Updated: May 03, 2007 12:49 IST
Peter Prengaman
Peter Prengaman

Police Chief William J Bratton promised an investigation into the conduct of police who dispersed an immigration rally, after videos captured officers using force with reporters and firing rubber bullets into crowds.

Bratton said officers fired 240 "nonlethal" rounds to clear MacArthur Park late on Tuesday. News images showed police hitting a television cameraman to the ground, shoving people who were walking away from officers and injuries from the rubber bullets, including a Hispanic man with welts on his abdomen and back. Lines of officers moved through the park firing the rubber rounds.

"The events of Tuesday, with all (the training) that we do, should not have occurred," Bratton said at a tense news conference on Wednesday. "We should not be engaged in attacks on the media." Rally organizers denounced the police action as brutal. With Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa away in El Salvador, City Council President Eric Garcetti spoke to viewers of the televised news conference in English and Spanish, stressing the duty to protect the people's right to assemble and for "a free and unencumbered news media."

John Mack _ president of the five-member Police Commission, which sets policty for the Police Department _ said he was "deeply disturbed and very disappointed" by the images.

"This was not a pretty picture. This incident raises serious concern regarding the use of force by some individual officers," said Mack, who is one of Bratton's bosses. The civilian commission has opened its own investigation.

Bratton said the clash occurred over 45 minutes to an hour as the rally wound down. Police were initially trying to deal with 50 to 100 "agitators," he said.

"The individuals were there to provoke police," Bratton said. "Unfortunately, they got what they came for."

Rally organizers and reporters said the clashes started around 6 pm, when police tried to disperse demonstrators who moved into a street. Authorities said several people threw rocks and bottles at officers, who used batons to push the crowd back to the sidewalk and then cleared the park.

Eight adults and a minor were arrested on charges ranging from public alcohol consumption to assault with a deadly weapon for throwing a rock at a police officer, Bratton said. Seven officers suffered minor injuries, and another was pushed off his motorcycle, he said. About 10 people were treated for minor injuries, though authorities expected the number to rise.

The 600 officers at the scene included 100 from the elite Metropolitan Division, considered among the department's most highly trained, who cleared the park.

Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, who represents the park district, said police deliberately led troublemakers back to the peaceful marchers before beginning their assault. "The only logical conclusion I can come to is that somebody wanted it to bleed into the march so that they can do some target practice on some of the immigrants that were marching," Nunez said.

The police order to disperse was in English and from a police helicopter, a likely ineffective tactic because of the noise and because many at the protest were Spanish-speakers, Bratton said.

Many caught in the melee were journalists. KTTV reporter Christina Gonzales suffered a separated shoulder, while camerawoman Patti Ballaz had a broken wrist and possibly a broken hand, said Fox Television Stations spokeswoman Erica Keane. KPCC radio reporter Patricia Nazario said she was hit in the back and ribs with a baton, then hit her head and twisted her ankle while falling from a blow. She described an interaction with an officer who was hitting her.

KCAL-TV cameraman Carl Stein said that his camera was tossed and that he was thrown to the ground.
"I'm sore, and I'm sore about what happened," Stein told viewers. "It was like open season- take a whack, have at it." Angela Sanbrano, a rally organizer, said she saw "a few young men with their faces covered" provoking police. But instead of just dealing with them, she said, police began forcing everyone out of the park.

"They were pushing children, elderly, mothers with their babies and beating up on the media," Sanbrano said.

The Los Angeles march was one of many nationwide demanding a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

(Additional contribution by: Don Thompson in Sacramento and Jeremiah Marquez and Michael R Blood in Los Angeles)

First Published: May 03, 2007 08:24 IST