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Oxnard Protest Targets Police

Reaction: Leaders of community groups to confront council about alleged comments by a department official about recent shootings.

January 08, 2002|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A coalition of community groups tonight plans to protest unfounded suggestions that a 23-year-old artist killed by police was on drugs, and comments by a police spokesman that Oxnard officers are "equal opportunity" shooters.

Leaders representing black and Latino groups said they will tell the City Council that the purported statements of police spokesman David Keith at a community meeting show an insensitivity to concerns about five fatal police shootings in 2001 and a premature judgment that the slaying of artist Robert Jones was justified.

"Any representative for the city of Oxnard should not be out there making these kinds of statements," said attorney Greg Ramirez, who represents the Jones family and a group of local Latino lawyers. "Our message is going to be that this is obviously a practice that is ratified by the City Council and needs to stop."

Ramirez, also a lawyer for the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said that as the Police Department investigated Jones' shooting, Keith offered the police's defense to one community group after another.

In late September, a month after Jones was killed, Keith noted the race of police homicide victims and the officers involved and joked that the shootings were "equal opportunity," Ramirez said.

He also led listeners to believe Jones was under the influence of PCP when officers shot the distraught, knife-wielding man as he hid in his closet, the attorney said.

"You can hear him on the tape say 'equal opportunity,' then there's laughing," Ramirez said. "He's admitted an error in judgment [to a news reporter]. Then he strongly infers that Robert Jones was on PCP. He didn't plant drugs on Robert physically, but he may as well have, because he says everything we see indicates it's PCP."

Toxicology tests later found no illegal drugs in Jones' system.

Keith could not be reached for comment.

A transcript of Keith's comments prepared by court transcribers hired by Ramirez's law office supports the lawyer's depiction of Keith's comments.

However, the transcript also shows that Keith stated repeatedly that the department did not know whether Jones was on PCP, but that he acted like someone under the influence of drugs. He said that Jones showed no effects when twice doused with pepper spray and was not slowed much after being shot twice with a beanbag shotgun.

"Typically, you think of PCP and things like that when someone doesn't react to those kinds of things," Keith said, according to the transcript.

Police Chief Art Lopez said the department is investigating to determine what Keith said.

"It's a personnel issue, so I can't discuss it," Lopez said. "I haven't viewed the transcript or [heard] the tape. But I've been with David Keith on a number of occasions when we have made comments, and he's judiciously shied away from drawing any conclusions on the case."

Shooting Still Under Investigation

In fact, more than four months after Jones' mother called police to take her armed, upset son to a hospital, Oxnard police are still investigating the shooting and Jones' history.

Police said initially that Jones was shot because the unemployed artist, brandishing a 13-inch knife, moved toward officers who had entered his bedroom and opened his closet. A full report will be forwarded soon to the district attorney's office, which will rule on whether the shooting was justified.

The state attorney general, the U.S. attorney's office and the FBI also are conducting inquiries into the circumstances of Jones' death.

"Everything is being done that we possibly can do to prepare our officers to avoid these types of confrontations," Lopez said. "We're serious about this."

The Jones shooting was the fifth fatality by an Oxnard officer last year. A sixth crime suspect was shot but survived. Lopez said that most of the suspects were mentally ill.

Shortly after the Jones killing, the police chief vowed to better train his department to avoid fatal confrontations with mentally ill people.

Eight Oxnard officers finished a 40-hour training course in December. And 20 to 25 of the roughly 200 officers will eventually be trained, Lopez said.

Then at least one officer will be on duty at all times with expertise in defusing potentially deadly showdowns with mentally ill people.

"Friday night we had a situation where the crisis intervention team was called out," Lopez said. "A suicidal individual held a knife to his carotid [artery], and our people were successful in having him drop the knife."

Ramirez said that groups expected to be represented at tonight's council meeting are the NAACP, the Mexican-American Bar Assn. of Ventura County, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Ventura County Black Attorneys Assn., the California Rural Legal Assistance and El Concilio del Condado de Ventura.

Councilman Welcomes Public Comments

Councilman Bedford Pinkard said he welcomes the presentations by the coalition formed last summer to investigate complaints of racial profiling against local police agencies.

Jones had filed two such complaints after being stopped twice by Oxnard police in the months before his death.

"I welcome their presence," Pinkard said. "I think the community should come and let us know their feelings. But in cases like this it's a personnel matter, really."

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