Like many boys who grew up in Southern California, I once considered becoming a Los Angeles Police Department officer. But my mother talked me out of it and in the process taught me a sad lesson that haunts me--and all of Los Angeles--to this day.
When I became an adolescent, after a childhood of playing with every "Dragnet" toy I could get my hands on, she took me aside and told me how the young Anglo policemen who patrolled our neighborhood in Pacoima often harrassed her as she walked home at night from her job as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant. Sometimes their crudely stated speculations that this devout Catholic woman was a prostitute or drug addict reduced her to tears.
Then she added a frightened warning I have never forgotten:
"And don't you ever say anything to them, talk back or anything," she said. "They'll beat you within an inch of your life."
I never forgot Mom's warning. And her chilling words came back with special poignancy after the Rodney G. King beating, which took place near my old neighborhood. What a sad commentary they were on an LAPD that "Dragnet" never showed us. A God-fearing mother who raised six children to be hard-working citizens felt she had to prepare her son for life in Los Angeles not only by warning him away from gangs--which she did, quite often--but also by warning him about the LAPD. For in the city's Latino barrios, the LAPD was not to be respected--much less aspired to--but feared.
And now comes last weekend's fatal shooting of 14-year-old Jose Antonio Gutierrez by an LAPD cop, Michael Falvo. Police say the boy was brandishing a semiautomatic weapon on a residential street in Lincoln Heights. Such a weapon was found near his body--but inside a fence and without his fingerprints--after he died. Witnesses, including Gutierrez's mother, say the boy had a flashlight in his hand.
Hearing all of this, I get the sick feeling I have whenever I am reminded of my mother's warning and the fearful look in her eyes.
After the King beating, which was videotaped for all the world to be appalled at, efforts began to reform the LAPD. Starting with the Christopher Commission report and continuing through the selection of a new, non-LAPD chief--Philadelphia's Willie Williams--LAPD's arrogant, macho culture seemed to be changing. Or so I thought.
Yet much about the Gutierrez shooting stands as a stark reminder of how much still needs to be done to reform LAPD. It is one of those violent urban tragedies with no heroes or villains, only victims.
Even at his young age, Gutierrez was a tattooed gang wanna-be who went by the nickname "Travieso"\o7 --\f7 Troublemaker.
Falvo, the officer who shot him, was one of 44 singled out by the Christopher Commission as "problem officers" because of a history of complaints of excessive force or improper behavior. Even if he had been rehabilitated, Falvo's presence on the streets posed a potential embarrassment to the city. What kind of bureaucratic mentality assigns a "problem officer" to LAPD's anti-gang detail, among the department's most sensitive and volatile jobs?
Just how volatile became obvious after the Gutierrez shooting. That same night, and the next sultry evening, rock- and bottle-throwing broke out in Lincoln Heights. LAPD had to call a citywide tactical alert to bring the situation under control, and at least 20 people were arrested. But the anger remains and the simmering tensions have aroused concern in City Hall, where Mayor Richard Riordan and the City Council urgently want to avoid a replay of the 1992 riots that broke out after the cops who beat Rodney King were acquitted by a jury.
They have reason to be worried. This summer marks the 25th anniversary of serious rioting on the Eastside. Four people died and millions of dollars in damage was done in 1970 during a series of often pitched battles between police and angry Latinos, mostly young gang members. Demonstrations are planned for later this month to commemorate the 1970 riots, and the Gutierrez shooting has handed the organizers a perfect issue with which to stir up old resentments and anger.
Luckily for Los Angeles, Chicano activists aren't the only ones reacting. City Council members Mike Hernandez and Richard Alatorre, who represent the Eastside, are prodding the LAPD to investigate the killing quickly and show some responsiveness to the community. Among others demanding an accounting from LAPD is the United Neighborhoods Organization, which unites most of the area's Roman Catholic churches. UNO represents the kind of solid citizens who usually rally around law enforcement. That they are not is a damning comment on how poorly LAPD's new philosophy of community-based policing is being implemented.
It is plain to see that new damage has been done to LAPD's image in the past few days. I wonder how many more kids are being warned by decent, caring mothers to be afraid of the LAPD.