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Poor Relationship Blamed in Attack on Police

Violence: Ramona Gardens residents say the LAPD's lack of communication with them led crowd to throw rocks and bottles at officers responding to shootout between a gunman and detectives.

February 03, 1996|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Residents of the Ramona Gardens housing project said Friday that deteriorating police-community relations--and a lack of official response to past complaints--contributed to a crowd throwing rocks and bottles at officers after police fatally shot a suspected gang member.

A Los Angeles police officer is recovering after being shot during the gun battle Thursday evening near the densely populated Eastside housing project.

"There's been a total lack of communication between the community and the police," said Isabel Ayala, a member of the Ramona Gardens Resident Advisory Council who met Friday with police representatives in the offices of Councilman Richard Alatorre.

In July, residents noted, Florencia Lopez, the advisory council president, wrote to Alatorre and the Police Department seeking help in "defusing a potentially explosive situation" centering on an anti-gang officer whom residents accused of treating inhabitants disrespectfully.

The officer named was not one of the two involved in the fatal shooting Thursday. Those two officers were part of a gang-suppression team assigned to the Boyle Heights area, which has one of the nation's highest concentrations of street gangs.

In her letter last summer, the Ramona Gardens representative wrote that residents' pleas to police had been met with "deaf ears"--a complaint reiterated by the residents on Friday.

Capt. Bruce E. Hagerty, who heads the LAPD's Hollenbeck station on the Eastside, pledged during the meeting with residents to look into their complaints.

"There are a lot of different points of view in a situation like this, and we're interested in what they have to tell us," Hagerty said.

The residents stressed that they were not now challenging the department's view that the shooting was justified. But inhabitants contrasted the massive police turnout after an officer was shot to what they said has been the department's cavalier attitude toward citizen complaints.

Coming a little more than six months after the fatal police shooting of a teenager in neighboring Lincoln Heights triggered a near-riot there, the incident underscored the tenuous police-community relations on the largely Latino Eastside.

"This just illustrates the tremendous gulf between the police and the people," said Antonio Rodriguez, an Eastside lawyer who has represented alleged victims of police brutality.

Police agreed that the reasons behind the rock- and bottle-throwing are disturbing.

"It's very troubling," said Cmdr. Tim McBride. "This incident clearly triggered some feelings. We're evaluating whether it was just an emotional outburst or something deeper."

The lessons of the 1992 riots--when police were severely criticized for not responding in force--clearly were heeded this time.

About 75 officers, some wearing riot helmets, arrived at the scene Thursday. They swooped down on the alley where the shooting occurred, quickly quelling the disturbance.

Police say the man who was killed opened fire shortly after 6:15 p.m. in an unprovoked attack on Officers Custodial Ponce, a seven-year LAPD veteran, and Xavier Darby, a nine-year veteran. The two returned fire, resulting in a "raging gun battle," McBride said.

The two officers had seen the suspect walking with a handgun in his waistband, police said.

The wounded assailant was rushed to Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead, authorities said. He still has not been publicly identified.

Ponce was hospitalized for gunshot wounds to the back and leg.

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