By Cassandra Reinhart and Andrea Adelson | LB Indy
Nearly 300 officers deployed by 17 agencies maintained peace at a Main Beach demonstration of 2,500 protesters this past Sunday, but Laguna Beach Police Chief Laura Farinella is already looking ahead to the next rally.
“We have a good blueprint on how to handle it,” said Farinella, whose organizational efforts managing the influx of opposing groups earned the praise of city officials at a City Council meeting Tuesday.
The organizers of Sunday’s demonstration, the anti-illegal immigration group America First, plan their fifth and final rally in Laguna on Sept. 24, said Farinella. Her department will monitor social media to learn “if it’s gaining the same energy and attention” as the most recent one, she said.
Counterprotesters estimated at 2,300 outnumbered supporter of the anti-immigration group, which Farinella put at 200 people. In reaction to violence at a demonstration over removing a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Va., earlier this month, “this rally took off on a life of it’s own,” she said, even though local organizers disavowed association with the neo-Nazis and white nationalists present in Virginia. “Regardless the comparison was drawn,” she said.
Next week, Farinella said she hopes to compile the public costs of the demonstration, though Laguna Beach will not bear the true cost of assistance from other agencies, which are barred from charging for their services under a countywide mutual aid agreement of 34 law enforcement agencies.
“For them to expect to pay for resources, it would break them,” said Sgt. Daron Wyatt, a spokesman for the Anaheim department, which sent an unspecified contingent from its 398 sworn officers to aid Laguna. “These kinds of events are very difficult to staff, even for an agency our size. We recognize that for Laguna, it’s a monumental task.”
Newport Beach, for example, sent 18 officers to Laguna, spokesman Lt. Jay Short said.
While larger police agencies in Anaheim and Huntington Beach both relied on mutual aid assistance to manage clashing demonstrators at political rallies in the last 12 months, Laguna has not seen a similar infusion in 24 years. “The only thing comparable was the mutual aid response from the 1993 fires in Laguna Beach,” said Sgt. Jim Cota, adding “you cannot put a price on public safety for our citizens and the protection of the downtown businesses.”
In preparation for the demonstration, Farinella said she received a commitment of 120 sworn and civilian personnel from outlying agencies. When more than 600 people had descended on Main Beach by 5:20 p.m., an hour before the rally’s scheduled start, Farinella said she called for 100 more, knowing they wouldn’t arrive for another 60 minutes. By 7 p.m., the crowd had swelled to 2,500 people.
“You have to think ahead. I’d rather have them here and not need them,” she said, though ultimately all the reinforcements, from a dozen mounted police to officers in riot gear, swarmed around the margins and into the crowd on the grass and boardwalk.
Tactics were shaped by events in Charlottesville and Barcelona, Spain, where cars plowed into crowds and from videos of demonstrations “where cities went wrong,” Farinella said. “We need to expect the unexpected. That’s where they were taken off guard; they weren’t prepared for violence. I knew it was coming; they didn’t,” she said.
To avoid similar mayhem, law enforcement officials lined the beachfront sidewalk with water-filled traffic barriers the night before. Police made three arrests — for battery, resisting arrest, and possession of a knife — during the nearly six-hour protest.
At times, tensions rose as opposing groups engaged in a war of words using megaphones. One contingent bearing red and black flags and the banner of the Socialist Democrats of America chanted slogans equating police to the Ku Klux Klan. Officers, who Farinella said were briefed in the field beforehand about the limits of free expression, exercised restraint and remained unfazed by the taunting.
To avoid direct confrontations, 20 officers on horseback aided crowd control by creating a buffer between political opposition groups. At times, lines of officers regrouped and relocated as protesters attempted to outflank police and confront their opponents more directly.
Farinella called the shots from the police department, monitoring the action alongside Capt. Jeff Calvert with the aid of newly installed surveillance cameras and direction from field commanders, Capt. Jason Kravetz and Lt.Tim Kleiser, posted at the Mobil gas station.
By 9 p.m., when 100 stragglers began hopping the barrier and spilling onto southbound lanes of Coast Highway, Farinella declared an “unlawful assembly,” and ordered the area cleared.
“We had the exact amount of officers that we wanted and that is why the incident went the way it did,” Cota said. “The police department has been planning extensively for this event since the last time they were here on July 30.”
Aside from cost, the rally’s aerial coverage by law enforcement and media took another toll. Some patrons in the audience at the outdoor Pageant of the Masters production complained about the circling helicopters, spokeswoman Sharbie Higuchi confirmed.
And in a reflection of local sentiments, two signs stood out above the clutter of political messages lofted by protestors. A plane pulled a banner overhead reading, “Hatred is beneath us,” and the theater marquee opposite the demonstration marketed an as yet unmade drama, “Love is Playing 24/7.”
Under a mutual aid agreement, a chief of police determines that an unusual occurrence may become or is already beyond the control of local law enforcement resources, and requests mutual aid from the county’s law enforcement mutual aid coordinator.
When requested to provide mutual aid, it is generally accepted that a reasonable response will consist of up to 50 percent of available on-duty uniformed personnel.
“We want to thank the community for their tremendous support and believing in us,” Cota said. “There were numerous calls and emails offering their support and backing.”
Besides handling the crowd of protesters, police also dealt with regional and national media outlets hungry for information. Satellite television news vans were already parked in front of Main Beach by Sunday morning staking their spots, and TMZ, CNN, Fox News East, and Reuters were among the agencies seeking police comment on the protest. Local and citizen journalists flooded social media with pictures, videos and sound from the rallies.
In answer to queries about halting the demonstration, City Manager John Pietig and City Attorney Phil Kohn said the protest could not lawfully be halted pre-emptively. Cities are obligated to allow free expression under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment “even if it’s something you don’t want to hear,” Pietig said.
Cities that have adopted demonstration permit requirements with discretionary guidelines find their ordinances challenged in court, Kohn said. “The ability of cities to control speech is limited.”
“Nothing speaks better than results,” he added.
See videos posted from the march at Indy’s Facebook page.