Cops and Protesters: A Tale of Two P.D.'s

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Ever hear the one about the LAPD? No? That's because this police department is about as funny as a double funeral.

When a genuine melee broke out Monday night outside the Staples Convention Center, just about the time Bill Clinton was dragging himself away from the podium, there was none of the "Let's be friends, folks" attitude that pervaded the police-protester interactions in Philadelphia. Belying this city's otherwise ultra-serene attitude, the LAPD, primed to a state of near-hysteria by repeated reports of brewing trouble, was ready with rubber bullets and tear gas, and when they descended on a huge crowd of rowdy placard-holders leaving a Rage Against the Machine concert across the street from the convention, it was clear there was going to be trouble.

And trouble there was; scores of police ran through the streets in formation, toting their rifles and swathed in riot gear as protesters either ran from the confrontation or embraced it, throwing rocks and bottles at nearby officers. The Staples Center and its immediate periphery were locked down, trapping many convention-goers inside the building. Various bystanders and curiosity-seekers were stunned by the force used by police, telling reporters they hadn't expected such a vigorous display of law and order.

While the protesters, many of whom have been training for the conventions for the better part of the year, touted the same array of causes they paraded through the streets in Philadelphia, the overall mood has been far more tense here in Los Angeles. Protesters say they are ready for the worst; police, apparently following a well-rehearsed script, will only tell reporters, "We're here to protect life and property." The open exchange so many reporters and delegates enjoyed with the Philadelphia cops has vanished, and in its place a tight-lipped silence has fallen.

The laser-sharp focus directed at the LAPD may be partly due to public perception: These cities have wildly divergent police cultures. Philadelphia police were widely praised for their humane approach to the protests, but they also came onto the scene bearing far less baggage than the LAPD toted into Monday night's confrontation. There is a palpable distrust of police here, stemming back decades, and the ongoing investigation into corruption charges have only served to broaden the chasm between many Angelenos and their ostensible protectors.

While many will argue the LAPD was only using necessary force to disperse an angry throng Monday night, the scale and locale of the disruption may cause serious harm to the force's already tattered reputation. And the city's police commissioner will have to endure the inevitable second-guessing: Was there a gentler way to approach the protesters? Could the police have done their job without firing rubber bullets? Ask an officer with the LAPD, and you won't get much of an answer. Ask anyone else, and you'll get an earful.