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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Public Pays Big Bucks for Police Aggression

May Day payoff
The DailyBreeze.Com by Daniel Weintraub - February 8, 2009

If reforms have been enacted, why such an expensive settlement for 2007 rally? After the city of Los Angeles paid $5 million to protesters and bystanders roughed up by police during the 2000 Democratic National Convention, you would think the Los Angeles Police Department had learned from the mistake.

Unfortunately, not quite. In 2007, police officers again responded with undue aggression to disperse a public demonstration - this one the May 1 pro-immigration rally in MacArthur Park. And while it appears that Police Chief William Bratton has finally set the LAPD on the right track, the City Council hasn't gotten the memo. Last week, the City Council unanimously approved a $12.85 million settlement with 297 people injured or affected by the May Day melee. Yes, Bratton had immediately apologized, admitted errors and accepted fault in how his department handled the clash, so the city probably would have fared poorly in court. But does that mean the council members and mayor have to open the city wallet and say take what you want?

It's understandable that the mayor and city leaders want to put this embarrassing event behind them - especially with re-election a few weeks away. However, we wonder if, in their haste to settle, they stuck the city's taxpayers with an inflated bill. (Remember the $18 million the city has already paid for various Fire Department discrimination settlements and judgments, including the infamous Tennie Pierce case? The $90 million for the Rampart police corruption cases?) Granted, the May Day melee was an appalling incident. On that day, thousands of people gathered in MacArthur Park after the pro-immigration rallies and marches. Some rocks and bottles were thrown at officers, and the LAPD issued an order to disperse. But some people didn't hear the order or were slow to move and LAPD officers began forcefully removing men, women and children from the park, using batons and rubber bullets on people trying to leave the park. Some 246 people reported injuries ranging from broken bones and bruises to emotional distress, according to the LAPD. Some 297 people joined the class-action lawsuit against the city. With the $12.85 million payout, that equals about $43,000 per litigant. Attorneys for the victims said payments will be based on injury and will likely begin at $3,000.

While these payouts are probably meant to be punitive and ensure the LAPD has learned its lesson, Chief Bratton has already punished or demoted the officers involved and begun training officers on how to handle crowd control in a safe, humane way. Attorneys for the victims have acknowledged and praised Bratton for the reforms enacted after May Day. So why such a huge payout - the nation's largest single settlement stemming from a demonstration? As we saw after the Democratic National Convention - a big settlement doesn't ensure lasting reform. Strong Police Department oversight and a culture of respect among officers do. That's Bratton's job, and he's faced it head on. The City Council's responsibility is to stop handing out multimillion-dollar settlements with taxpayer money just to make unpleasantness go away.

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