Thursday, December 20, 2007
Court: Suit Against LAPD Over May Day Rally May Proceed
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
A federal judge has ruled that individuals who claim that the Los Angeles Police Department violated their civil rights when it forcefully dispersed a May 1, 2007 pro-immigration rally in MacArthur Park may proceed with a class action suit against the department.
U.S. District Judge A. Howard Matz of the Central District of California ruled that the Multi-Ethnic Immigrant Workers Organizing Network can go forward with its claim that the department violated the rights of individuals who were present in the park, certifying a damages class for individuals who claim they were present and unjustifiably subjected to the dispersal order, and an injunctive class for members of the group who might engage in future peaceful demonstrations or protest.
The group, an association of five non-profit organizations whose stated purpose is to fight for better living and working conditions for immigrant workers, brought suit claiming that the department violated its rights under state and federal law when it declared the rally an “unlawful assembly” and forcibly cleared thousands of people from the park using batons and “less-lethal” munitions such as rubber bullets.
The rally, which occurred at the end of a morning march in downtown Los Angeles, was similar to other “May Day” rallies the group had conducted in previous years in the park, which is located in an area of the city largely populated by Latinos.
An estimated 6,000 to 7,000 people were present in or around the park at 5:00 p.m. when some 20 to 30 attendees that the department has described as “anarchist kids” began throwing objects at the police, including water bottles and gravel. When officers in the field reported the development and that unruly elements were inciting the crowd, supervising officers decided to declare an unlawful assembly and disperse the crowd using resources from the department’s elite Metropolitan Division.
At 6:17 p.m., members of the division formed a skirmish line and, without giving a dispersal order, began moving the crowd, pushing and striking some individuals, including some members of the media, and firing “less-lethal” munitions. A few minutes later, a police helicopter broadcast a partial dispersal order in English, but the order was inaudible to many in the park, including some department commanders on the ground.
Less than 30 minutes later, officers had driven thousands of people from the park, knocked over and struck some individuals – including media and non-media, peaceful or not, the plaintiffs alleged – and deployed a total of 146 less-lethal impact munitions and over 100 uses of the baton.
After filing its class action complaint, MIWON moved to certify two classes: one seeking to enjoin the department from similarly dispersing future peaceful demonstrations or protests that the group might hold, and a second to secure compensatory, statutory and exemplary damages for individuals who were forcibly dispersed from the park.
Matz certified both proposed classes after determining that the group had shown that individuals who had been present at the rally alleged an actual and direct injury, and that the group faced a real and immediate threat of being prevented by the department from participating in future lawful demonstrations.
Rejecting the department’s argument that the event was isolated, and that the department had already institutionalized policies and training needed to prevent a recurrence, he wrote that the department’s history of issuing unlawful dispersal orders and using excessive force after entering into settlement agreements to resolve similar complaints gave rise to a realistic threat that the violation of federal rights would be repeated.
“Although steps were taken in the immediate aftermath of previous litigation,” he wrote, “nevertheless new instances of misconduct occurred. The Court cannot find that the measures the LAPD took after May 2007 have achieved, in a mere six months, the reforms that plaintiffs in previous cases sought for over a decade.”
Carol A. Sobel, counsel for the plaintiffs, told the MetNews that the order showed that the court recognized that the department had engaged in a pattern of conduct by which it failed to comply with agreements settling similar claims.
“It is critically important to get orders and pressure on the LAPD to get institutional change beyond just a few years,” she said. Sobel also noted the importance of the fact that the court had based its decision on the department’s own report.
Nick Velasquez, a spokesperson for City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, said that officials were carefully reading the judge’s order, and that it is still reviewing its options on how to proceed.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company