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Rethink El Monte Policing

September 01, 1999

Forty of Los Angeles County's independent cities employ Sheriff's Department deputies to keep the peace. Perhaps El Monte ought to be added to that list.

The consideration arises from a tragically botched Aug. 9 drug raid in Compton by the El Monte Police Department's version of a SWAT team. The incident left the 65-year-old patriarch of a family dead from two gunshot wounds in the back during a dramatic shoot-the-locks-off-the-doors raid. El Monte police described the operation as an effort to "further their investigation." It occurred after the arrest of a suspected drug dealer, Marcos Beltran Lizarraga, and the confiscation of cash, marijuana and weapons at locations frequented by the suspect.

But the supposed drug connection to the Compton home of Mario Paz, the slain grandfather, seemed tenuous. A search warrant said that police expected to find marijuana and drug profits there.

The FBI and the Sheriff's Department are now investigating the incident, and they need to cover a lot of ground. El Monte police said that they had no information tying Paz or his family to drug trafficking, before or after the shooting. Then why the nocturnal raid?

El Monte police said they feared that there might be armed men at the home. Assistant Police Chief Bill Ankeny also complains that the public has heard only one side of the story and that "nothing has come out in defense of the officers." In fact, El Monte police have provided three different explanations for the shooting: (1) Paz was shot because officers believed he was armed; (2) Paz was shot because they thought they saw him reaching for a gun; (3) Paz was shot because he began to reach for a nearby drawer where, police said, guns subsequently were found.

In the first place, why does a city as small as El Monte (population 116,400), with only 144 police officers, have a SWAT team, one that roams elsewhere in the county? Even before the August shooting, the department had more than its share of trouble. Some members of the force were caught drinking alcohol and shooting out a light on city property last year; one officer fired her weapon outside a bar in July; yet another was accused just days ago of brandishing his weapon at a motorist during an argument.

El Monte clearly has some soul-searching to do on how best to fulfill its law enforcement responsibilities.

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