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LAPD used new tactics in Lakers celebration melee

June 15, 2009 |  5:11 pm

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As the mood of the crowd outside Staples Center turned quickly from jubilation over the Laker victory to something more destructive, Los Angeles police knew they had to finely calibrate their response to avoid the public-relations debacles of the department’s recent past.

Officers had to control an anarchic group of “knuckleheads,” in the words of Chief William J. Bratton, yet avoid trampling the rights of hundreds of people out to celebrate the Lakers’ first championship win in seven years.

They could not have a repeat of the immigration rights protest in MacArthur Park in 2007, when police battered dozens of peaceful protesters and journalists with batons and bean-bag rounds, eventually costing the city more than $10 million in legal settlements and prompting an overhaul of LAPD crowd control procedures.

The new strategy: Remove the rabble-rousers, push larger crowds into marginal areas and chase smaller groups until they disperse. In Monday-morning analysis of their Sunday-night response, police command declared the approach a success, limiting injuries and property damage, and showing the public that the department could restrain the use of force.

“We cannot afford to be involved in responding in a knee-jerk way,” said Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger. “Too much is at stake. You’re talking lives, property and elusive public confidence.”

The trouble started at 8:30 p.m., when people outside Staples Center began lighting Orlando Magic jerseys on fire.

Soon trash cans and trees went up in flames. Officers ordered the crowd to disperse. But several bands of young men split off. They stomped car windshields, tossed traffic barricades, ripped out parking signs, tagged walls and threw rocks through windows.

Two men ran across a line of police cars and kicked in a windshield.

 At Pico Boulevard and Flower Street, a group stormed a vintage shoe stored called the Holy Grail and stole nearly 800 pairs of consignment sneakers. At Grand Avenue and Olympic Boulevard, about 20 men wearing Lakers apparel swarmed into the convenience store at a Shell gas station shouting, “Free soda, free soda.” They smashed bottles on the floor, trampled bananas, grabbed what they wanted -- water, chips, candy and six-packs of soda -- and left.

“Everything happened so quick,” said German Bonilla, 27, who was working the graveyard shift at the store. “I was just standing behind the counter. I wasn’t going to do anything because there was so many of them.” By midnight, the melee was over. Eight police officers suffered minor injuries; 21 people had been arrested; 12 government vehicles, including six MTA buses, had been damaged; and one traffic light was knocked down, authorities said.

In addition to the shoe store and Shell station, looters hit a pharmacy. And they threw debris on Metro Blue Line tracks, delaying the trains for hours. Most of the vandalism occurred in the areas several blocks south and west of the downtown venue complex as police deployed heavily around the newly built LA Live entertainment complex.

Paysinger said things could have been a lot worse. When the Lakers won the championship in 2000, mobs burned two LAPD patrol cars, damaged at least 74 other vehicles at nearby auto dealerships, tore branches from trees, hurled road construction barricades through store windows and set fire to trash cans. Police made 11 arrests outside Staples Center that year but were criticized for mostly watching the flurry of vandalism around the arena.

Several months later, police ratcheted up their response, repeatedly clashing with protesters at the Democratic Convention.

-- Andrew Blankstein, Richard Winton, Corina Knoll and Joe Mozingo

Photo: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

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