LOS ANGELES – In more than a week of civil unrest since the killing of George Floyd, Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore has been at the helm of a massive police response, which has included the controversial firing of foam bullets and arresting of peaceful protesters.
Some of those tactics and a remark he made in an empty room at City Hall on Monday, with reporters watching remotely because of COVID-19, have left him scrambling to preserve all he has worked for as a chief staking his legacy on repairing frayed relationships with black and Latino residents.
Minutes after saying that looters were as responsible for Floyd's death as were the Minneapolis police officers who held down his neck with a knee or watched it happen, Moore walked back the words.
But no matter how much he repeated and rephrased the apology, the damage was done.
The following day, he sat silently at a Police Commission meeting for nine hours as citizen after citizen – several hundred in all – demanded his resignation. While Mayor Eric Garcetti and other officials have expressed support for Moore, a petition calling for him to be fired because of the remark has more than 42,000 signatures.
The comment and the uneven response to the unfolding unrest have put Moore on the defensive.
The department will be preparing an "extensive after-action report" to assess its performance during the protests and is investigating disturbing images of aggressive police tactics caught on video, he said.
As the situation spiraled out of control in the Fairfax District last weekend, Moore ordered officers to stop striking protesters with batons. On Tuesday, Garcetti said he has instructed the LAPD to minimize the use of foam bullets and batons, and "if we can, to not use them at all."
Moore has tried to show another side of the LAPD, sympathizing with the public outcry over Floyd's killing, acknowledging the racial inequities in American society and sometimes kneeling in front of protesters to show his willingness to listen.
"We see the hurt. We know and recognize the pain, the anguish," Moore said in an interview with The Times. "We're disgusted, and we share so many of the same emotions with regard to this latest episode that George Floyd represents and with regard to issues of black people and all communities of color and their standing in America and the inequities that exist today and the history that has made that existence seem forever."
But his Monday comments, while focused on looters, were perceived by many as at odds with that ethos.
"We didn't have protests last night. We had criminal acts," Moore said. "We didn't have people mourning the death of this man, George Floyd. We had people capitalizing. His death is on their hands as much as it is those officers."
Moore said he spoke off the cuff, on little sleep after a long day, and "entirely made the wrong connection" in searching for an analogy.
He meant to say that the looters were distracting from the focus on racism in policing sparked by Floyd's death and the nationwide protests that followed, he said.
"I regret that that misstatement and that mistake has taken as much time away from focusing on the true issues and true concerns of police reform, of societal reform, of how we make our society fair to all, and particularly addressing the injustices involving our black communities," he said.
Moore is not known for being a stylish orator. His statements often devolve into bureaucratese. But he chooses his words carefully and is not prone to gaffes. That made the remark all the more striking.
Some community leaders say it reminded them of something an LAPD leader would say in the 1980s and early 1990s, at a time of widespread police abuse targeting minorities. Moore was a young officer back then and rose through the ranks of a department that spent two decades enacting wrenching reforms, trying to repair relationships with communities of color and working to build a more diverse police force.
"Was he in a candid moment actually telling the truth? If so, that candid moment told me one thing," said longtime civil rights leader Earl Ofari Hutchinson. "Has this department, with its promises of reform, is there a danger of showing the old face of the LAPD? Is there a danger of slipping back into that?"
Hutchinson said he is not calling for the chief to step down, despite his grave concern over the remark. But he said Moore has work to do to build back his credibility.
"What the chief doesn't want is to be the second coming of Daryl Gates," Hutchinson added, referring to the former police chief known for his hard-charging crime-fighting tactics, including Operation Hammer, with officers attacking apartment buildings with battering rams and rounding up thousands of people in South L.A. in 1988.
Many protesters and Black Lives Matter leaders say it's time for him to go.
Paula Minor, an organizer for Black Lives Matter, said Moore's remark shows that his mindset is closer to Gates' than to a reformer who will work with activists to change policing in the city.
"He may sound better, look better and use better words," Minor said. "But the mentality, the attitude is the same. It's a 'them,' it's a 'those people' philosophy. That's why our policing system truly has bias against black people."