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Patrol Car Smashing of Shrine Fuels Ire : Memorial: Officers call incident at site commemorating man killed by police an accident. Residents of Watts housing project dispute their contention.

December 25, 1991|ANDREA FORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Los Angeles police car ran over a homemade shrine honoring a man slain by officers at the Imperial Gardens housing project, but police said Tuesday it was an accident that occurred after someone fired at a squad car.

Some residents of the Watts project angrily rejected the police explanation for the Monday night incident, and demanded that the LAPD stay out of their neighborhood.

The shrine was created to honor Henry Peco, 29, shot by police during a power blackout at Imperial Gardens on Nov. 29. Police have contended that Peco fired first, but some residents maintain that Peco was unarmed and that the LAPD has tried to cover up the facts of the shooting.

Immediately after the Peco shooting, officers faced scores of angry, shouting Imperial Gardens residents, and tensions have run high ever since.

Lt. Sergio Diaz, of the LAPD Southeast Division, said officers inadvertently plowed into the memorial to Peco Monday night, while responding to a call for assistance from other officers who believed they were being fired upon.

The memorial to Peco was a rectangle in a grassy open space formed by a tinsel Christmas tree garland and glass-encased candles surrounded by a wire fence a few inches high. Inside, friends and relatives had placed Christmas decorations, pennies, two glasses of beer and other mementos with Peco's nickname--"Tiny"--scrawled on them.

"The car was chasing two individuals when it had to back up suddenly and backed over the memorial," said Diaz, as he studied a report turned in by an officer who, he said, had talked to at least four witnesses.

Within five minutes of the shooting, Diaz said, someone threw a bottle at a different patrol car. No suspects were arrested in either incident.

After the incident, about 100 residents gathered at the scene, shouting and swearing at police, he said.

The shrine had been rebuilt by Tuesday afternoon, when about 50 residents gathered nearby to complain to reporters during an impromptu press conference. Four of the candles used in the rebuilt shrine were provided "as a sign of goodwill" by a police sergeant who responded to the scene shortly after the incident, Diaz said.

Residents angry over the shooting of Peco have formed the Henry Peco Justice Committee, which has filed a formal complaint against the LAPD and, along with Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), demanded an independent investigation of the shooting.

The head of the committee, Rev. Carl Washington, a project resident who is affiliated with a nearby church, said Monday's incident is "another example of the harassment we've had to suffer at the hands of the police."

He said he and other residents would try to obtain a court order after the holidays barring the LAPD from the projects. They would prefer to be under the jurisdiction of city Housing Authority police, he said.

Since Peco was killed, people in the project have thrown bottles at police at least twice, excluding the Monday incident, Diaz said. He said he did not know whether such actions were related to residents' anger over the death.

"We're speculating that it is related, but we do not know that," he said. "People have thrown things at the police before the shooting and they probably will again."

Although they refused to provide their full names, two young men who said they witnessed the incident disputed the police account. They said the driver of the patrol car appeared to be acting deliberately.

"How could he have missed it?" said one of the young men, who identified himself only as John. "The candles were lit and everybody knows it is there."

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