When Cops Commit Property Damage

Some of the wreckage after LAPD officers detonated a seizure of fierworks in a South LA neighborhood.
Some of the wreckage after LAPD officers detonated a seizure of fireworks in a South LA neighborhood. Photo: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/Shutterstock

Last Wednesday, as people were loading up on sparklers and hot dogs for the Fourth of July weekend, an explosion ripped through a South Los Angeles neighborhood. The blast shattered windows and flipped cars as far as two blocks away, injuring 17 people and forcing residents of at least 12 homes to move into a temporary shelter set up by the Red Cross. The elementary school on East 28th Street, about a block away from ground zero, was unaffected, but several people in neighboring buildings were hospitalized because flying glass shards had cut their faces.

The police have said they will “investigate” what happened. But their investigation won’t include the typical search for a suspect, because the party responsible for the explosion is the Los Angeles Police Department itself. Law-enforcement officials were executing what was supposed to be a “controlled detonation.” A week later, some local residents are still displaced, and the department is still trying to figure out what went wrong.

The police are sure of two things so far, and the first is how it all started. Cops searched a home on the 700 block of East 27th Street and seized about 5,000 pounds of fireworks, including what one LAPD detective described as “a small amount of unstable, improvised explosive-type fireworks.” Most of these materials were slated to be transported to a storage facility, but some of them were deemed too volatile, so the bomb squad decided to blow them up right there in the middle of the neighborhood. To accomplish this, they brought in a special truck with armored walls and tried to detonate about 10 pounds of fireworks inside of it.

Then there was a “total catastrophic failure of that containment vehicle,” said LAPD Chief Michael Moore. Part of the container’s lid was sent flying into the air, smashing part of someone’s roof several blocks down before landing in their backyard, reports CBS LA.

The second thing the cops are sure of is that they don’t want to pay for the damage. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Marta Elba, 61 … [asked] police how she could be reimbursed for a broken window caused by the blast. Elba said police told her she needed to call her insurance company.”

These two things are related. And they illustrate how police impunity extends beyond the destruction of people’s bodies to the destruction of almost everything else in their vicinity, including people’s homes.

The police’s license to kill has animated hundreds of protests and riots in the past year, involving up to 26 million people, the largest movement of its kind in U.S. history. These demonstrations have focused mostly on police killings of civilians, which in the last seven years have risen in prominence, if not necessarily in number, to the level of a nationally recognized emergency. Cops and their backers have tried to deflect the dissident energy in other directions, often toward the demonstrators’ own behavior and how it supposedly undermines the goals they claim to be pursuing.

A frequent object of this misdirection has been property. Whenever buildings get harmed, a familiar chorus arises casting the damaged structures as evidence of how irresponsible the dissidents are. “If you loot, riot, and destroy you lose all moral credibility, in my eyes, to protest injustice,” tweeted Charlie Kirk, then a surrogate for President Trump, at the start of last year’s uprising in Minneapolis, expressing a commonly held opinion.

When property destruction is not being weaponized as an emblem of demonstrators’ unworthiness, it is invoked to guilt them and to claim that they’re failing as good-faith partners in communities they share with other people, including cops. When Daunte Wright was killed by police in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, in April, then-Chief Tim Gannon appealed to “our community, a community that I’ve been a part of for 27 years” to forestall damage to property during the ensuing protests. Never mind that his officers had spent years broadcasting how uninterested they were in sharing a community with the people they patrolled, epitomized by the fact that none of them actually lived in the city.

But this irony is secondary to the material fact of police fecklessness. In the course of their official duties, the cops’ sense of responsibility toward people’s living spaces and belongings is often as negligible as anything they accuse protesters of, and usually the police are far less accountable.

When LAPD officers told Elba she should contact her insurance company last week, they did so with a confidence instilled by years of legal precedent. According to the Times, a 1995 California Supreme Court ruling confirmed that “the government should not be held liable for damage that occurs as a consequence of lawful and reasonable actions by the police.” This isn’t a guarantee that cops or the city won’t compensate the victims of last week’s blast. But it makes accountability for law enforcement a piecemeal affair, at best, and contingent in large part on whether the cops own up to what they did wrong.

This doesn’t happen with any consistency. In past instances where law-enforcement entities have damaged property, they’ve sometimes deployed a civil-litigation unit to help the affected people. Other victims have been hung out to dry. In 2011, police in Schenectady, New York, coaxed a landlord into giving them keys to one of her tenants’ units. The next morning, they plowed through the man’s door with a battering ram, wrecking the doorframe and dislodging the wall between the apartment and the hall. The landlord was encouraged to file an insurance claim for compensation from the city. It was promptly denied because “the police had a search warrant.”

Some victims are trying to push the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2015, a SWAT team tore every window out of Leo Lech’s home in Greenwood Village, Colorado, and pulverized most of the interior while looking for a guy they suspected of shoplifting. A federal appeals court ruled they didn’t owe him anything. He’s still trying to get SCOTUS to hear the case.

The suffering and inconvenience experienced by property owners with insurance — and the time and wherewithal needed to file claims, compile thorough documentation, and follow up over weeks, months, and even years — is one thing. But in many cases, the destruction caused by police affects people with fewer means to recoup their losses. Residents of the area where cops detonated the fireworks last week have pointed out that law-enforcement recklessness in neighborhoods like theirs is no accident, precisely because they are more vulnerable.

“Bombings of communities of color are not a mistake,” said one resident at a news conference. “[The police] called the press … [They] didn’t let no neighborhood council leader know” before they set off the explosion. The cops warned some residents by going door to door — a dubious method in a neighborhood long marked by police abuse, and where many people are accustomed to distrusting law enforcement. (The LAPD is renowned for a drug-raid innovation it developed in the 1980s that literally entailed driving through people’s homes with a tank.)

Several residents were in their homes when last week’s detonation happened. Some are raising money on GoFundMe to cover their new living costs and medical expenses. This fallout is normal, and it is widely understood as elemental. “It’s just like if your home was in an area where there was a landslide and we shut you down for safety issues,” an officer from the LA County Sheriff’s Department told the Times in 2005. “The government entity is not responsible for that.”

Debates over whether police are a force for safety in American communities would be more comprehensive if they accounted not only for the death and bodily injury officers cause, but for the destruction and displacement they impose on people’s everyday living environments. This is not an unavoidable result of nature’s laws, as the “landslide” metaphor suggests, but a consequence of discrete decisions made by the cops and of the norms that shield them from being held responsible. The extent to which South LA residents will be made whole is yet to be seen. But the officers’ decision to detonate what was effectively a bomb in their neighborhood is unavoidably linked to their low regard for the community where they did it.

Responsibility is routinely demanded of the people they wish to shame. They stand amid rubble declining it for themselves.

When Cops Commit Property Damage