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LAPD plans crackdown to rein in unruly Black Friday shoppers

November 22, 2012 |  7:48 am

Authorities are searching for a woman accused of pepper-spraying other shoppers Thursday night at the Wal-Mart in Porter Ranch so that she could grab more discounted merchandise

The Los Angeles Police Department is cracking down to try to avoid incidents that have marred previous Black Fridays.

The department plans to deploy dozens of extra officers around the city Friday to make sure frantic shoppers don't get out of hand.

"For some people, shopping is a competitive sport," LAPD Commander Andy Smith said. "But it should not be a contact sport."

Despite all the headlines, Black Friday misbehavior still is relatively rare. Police report a scattering of brawls, assaults and larcenies each year. But it's the headlines of far worse crimes that people remember. A few years ago, gunfire erupted in a crowded Palm Desert Toys R Us, killing two people. Four years ago, a Long Island, N.Y., Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death by a crush of customers who toppled large glass doors.

Aimee Drolet Rossi, a consumer psychologist at UCLA's Anderson School of Management, said it should not be surprising that some people act out on Black Friday. Research on rats and monkeys has shown that they become more aggressive when placed in a crowded situation, and Rossi said humans are no different.

"Crowding leads people to behave less altruistically, in part because people's sense of responsibility lags when a lot of other people are around," she said. "People assume that other people will step up to help someone who is in distress."

This year, the LAPD said it will be prepared.

Helicopters will buzz above some shopping centers, and below, a cavalry of LAPD officers will patrol on bikes and horses. From store rooftops, officers will scan the crowds below looking for unruly behavior. Electronic signs near stores will tell customers about how to avoid becoming theft victims as they navigate the mass of humanity looking for bargains.

The deployments are part of a new strategy by the LAPD to deal with the retail roller derby that comes after Thanksgiving. In addition to stationing officers around shopping centers, the LAPD has been visiting stores across the city this week, talking to managers about the psychology of the frantic shopper.

Officials said the push was prompted by a series of incidents at Black Friday sales, notably one last year at a Porter Ranch Wal-Mart in which two dozen people were injured when a woman unleashed pepper spray during a frantic battle for some discounted video games.

Smith said he hopes people will behave. But "like Chief [Charlie] Beck says, we are not in the optimism business."

The LAPD would not say exactly how many officers it will deploy Friday, but the number is expected to be considerable. In the Valley divisions, for example, officials have put together detailed tactical plans for each major shopping center, using mobile command posts and both officers and cadets.

Even some big retailers — which for years fueled the shopping frenzy with aggressive marketing and deep discounts — are trying to rein in some of the excitement they create this year.

Fernando Reyes, manager of the Wal-Mart in Porter Ranch where the pepper-spray incident occurred, said his main goal is to avoid a repeat of the chaos. He has met with the LAPD and plans new crowd-control strategies, including setting up special check-out lines for some sales items.

The store also plans to give out vouchers to shoppers for "door-buster" merchandise to avoid people jockeying for the limited supplies. If a customer did not get such a voucher, Reyes said, there should be a "reasonable expectation" they won't get the sales item.

The LAPD has talked to other retailers about creating "time-specific entry passes" that would stagger the number of shoppers who are inside the store at any given time. In a flier the department is handing out to store managers, officials note that "this process has been very successful at many of the major theme parks and can help to ensure organized, safe entry into your business."

The LAPD has also suggested that retailers avoid stacking sales items on pallets "to mitigate crowd aggression."

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-- Andrew Blankstein and Hector Becerra

Photo: Police respond to Wal-Mart in Porter Ranch last year. Credit: Andrew Blankstein / Los Angeles Times

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