As police brutality protests were taking place in major cities across the country, the Long Beach Police Department on May 31 prepared for an anticipated few hundred people to demonstrate outside of its headquarters.
But the department was quickly forced to rethink its strategies as a crowd of hundreds swelled into thousands, all marching through Downtown in protest of the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
While the march was mostly peaceful, the evening devolved into chaos as looters and vandals struck more than 200 locations throughout the city.
From about 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. that evening, Long Beach officers were scrambling to gain control as outside police agencies and the National Guard were called to help. By sunset, police were firing less-lethal rounds to disperse crowds as people threw rocks and water bottles at officers.
“That was six hours of chaos,” Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna said in Public Safety Committee Meeting on Tuesday where he gave City Council members his most public accounting yet of the department’s preparedness.
Long Beach police have faced criticism for not doing enough to protect businesses from damage and looting that night. Tuesday’s meeting was a chance for Luna to give a “lessons learned” overview and brief the committee’s three members: Suzie Price, Al Austin and Daryl Supernaw.
Price, the committee chair and an Orange County prosecutor, asked why police initially stood down as looters were seen on TV running off with armfuls of merchandise.
“One of the biggest concerns was from people who were watching on TV and seeing police officers not making arrests,” she said.
Luna said police should have moved to stop the looting, but supervisors in the field were concerned about safety.
“There was no order from the top not to make arrests, but the supervisors on scene didn’t feel that it was safe to do so at the time,” he said. “Those are things that are being debriefed, and they were corrected. And if that happens again right now, tonight, I can almost assure you, that would not occur again.”
Luna said police didn’t start making arrests until around 7 p.m. While the department in hindsight could have “done better,” he said, officers overall did an excellent job in the chaos. More than half of the department’s 800 officers were deployed that day as they handled a 171% surge in calls for service, he said.
“Our priority that night was preservation of life, so our biggest win was not having anyone get critically injured or killed, but our biggest disappointment that night was feeling that we failed our individual business owners, and that was not a good feeling,” he said.
Business owners, City Hall insiders and rank-and-file police officers have also questioned whether the LBPD was prepared for the havoc on May 31, even after seeing similar unrest play out in cities across the country.
Luna said the department has received many questions about why the National Guard wasn’t called earlier that day. He said the city had to declare an emergency and exhaust law enforcement resources from the county, which decides how to deploy mutual aid.
He said the city’s first mutual aid request came in at 4:40 p.m. as police declared a stage-three tactical alert, meaning the entire department is required to work. The LAPD had declared a similar alert a day earlier during unrest in Los Angeles.
Following Floyd’s death, police departments across the country have faced calls for defunding and heightening scrutiny over use of force.
In Tuesday’s public safety meeting, the department also gave an overview of its use-of-force tactics, noting that use-of-force cases have dropped significantly in recent years as the city has added funding for body cameras and training.
Over the past five years, overall use-of-force incidents have dropped roughly 30% from 493 in 2015 to 340 last year. Officer-involved shootings dropped from nine in 2015 to three last year.
However, serious use-of-force cases still disproportionately involve Black residents, analyses have shown.
Luna said the city should be proud of the investment in its officers and the decrease in force.
“The numbers are showing that it’s working,” he said. “It’s absolutely working.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated to clarify that Luna said field supervisors were concerned about general safety, not only officers’ safety, when holding them back from making arrests.