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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

A Terrible Way to Learn the Realities of Civic Life Today

October 07, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

How can a guy packing a gun go right into a city hall and begin blasting away at a mayor, a city councilman, a councilwoman and a couple of cops?

How could the governmental headquarters of a rather large American city, in this day and age, not have a single security checkpoint?

That's what the mayor of Riverside--who got shot Tuesday--and his associates had better start discussing, just as soon as their doors reopen following a near-massacre.

Somebody slipped up.

So somebody had better make sure that nothing like this can ever happen again.

A city of 226,505 is bound to have more than one who has gone over the edge. By all available evidence, Joseph L. Neale is one of those people.

He filed a lawsuit against the city after being let go from a part-time job in the parks department. He sat in on a number of the City Council's meetings.

And he showed up for one around 8 a.m. Tuesday, armed.

Nobody stopped him.

*

Before somebody shot him, Neale, 48, literally fought City Hall, allegedly taking no fewer than half a dozen people hostage at gunpoint. He fired bullets that hit the mayor, Ron Loveridge, in the neck; a councilman, Chuck Beaty, in the face and shoulder; and a councilwoman, Laura Pearson, in the hip.

A police sergeant, Wally Rice, took one in the abdomen. Another officer who got shot was lucky enough to be wearing a bulletproof vest.

Riverside is lucky too--lucky not to be reeling today from an out-and-out blood bath.

What was terrible could have been worse.

City Hall can reopen today as scheduled, without a number of funerals to arrange, without 1,000 tabloid reporters and TV crews waiting outside, demanding explanations for a multiple homicide.

The fact that Neale's job is as a postal worker won't need to be milked for more than it's worth, either. The post office has enough problems.

Best news of all was for Riverside's police chief, Jerry Carroll, who now won't have to be holding a news conference every day for a month. Things can get back to normal in Riverside considerably sooner than they would have if several of its leading citizens lay dead.

Cops rarely get panicky--they see too much--but nobody could fault Carroll for being flustered enough in Tuesday morning's immediate aftermath that he offered his sympathies to the "victims of the families."

Then he updated Loveridge's condition and wished the mayor could be there to speak for himself.

"Here he is," somebody said, and sure enough, there came the mayor.

Grazed in the neck, Loveridge was lucky to be alive, and he knew it. The mayor described it as "surrealistic" that one second you're standing there in an annex behind the City Council's meeting place, and the next second you realize that "you may or may not leave this room."

The room having turned into an OK Corral, with a gunman shooting people and a lawman shooting him.

As soon as Riverside's City Council is whole again and can convene, the first order of business will have to be about itself--why this Neale could come into a council meeting chamber free as a bird, and why a motion had better be made by somebody, and seconded, to approve funds for a brand new metal detector.

Maybe two.

"I suspect other cities will" do likewise, Loveridge added--beef up security, that is, after seeing what happened in Riverside.

It has only been a couple of months since a similar incident occurred at a government building in Washington, D.C., here in a country where guns are now a lot more commonplace in pants pockets than gum.

Riverside's mayor called the shootout "something you would see in a movie or on television."

Yes, on your nightly news.

*

A day earlier in Riverside, trouble blew into town. It came with the Santa Ana winds, which whipped a fire out of control until it burned tens of thousands of acres. A pilot of an air tanker was killed in a crash, not far from the fire.

Later Monday night, a firefighter collapsed and eventually died from cardiac arrest while battling a second blaze. More than 1,000 firefighters had to be called out, and more than 1,000 residents had to be evacuated from their homes by the evening's end.

It has not been Riverside's week.

The city can't prevent a fire. But it can help prevent gunfire, and it had better start today.

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or e-mail mike.downey@latimes.com.

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