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THE INGLEWOOD BEATING

Action Imperils Dream Job

Career: Officer Morse achieved his life's goal to be a cop, but working in Inglewood wore on him, friends say.

July 12, 2002|RICHARD MAROSI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He grew up in Oregon's high desert wanting to be a cop, then followed his dream to the tough streets of Inglewood.

Jeremy J. Morse told his friends he loved helping people, but flinched when residents returned his waves with obscene gestures.

He pumped weights regularly, building strength and beefy forearms so he would never lose his gun to a suspect.

At 24, he already had three years under his belt. Colleagues called him a good cop, and he aimed at someday winning a promotion to detective.

But now Morse finds himself at the center of the nation's latest videotaped law-enforcement storm, his beating of a 16-year-old boy held up by many as a frightening example of police brutality.

Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn wants him fired. Residents scream for his arrest. And authorities from as far away as Washington, D.C., have descended on the city to investigate.

Morse has been suspended with pay. At his modest Ontario home, the shades are drawn and a lawn-sodding project sits unfinished, with several mounds of dirt still piled around the front yard. A middle-aged man who answers the door says he is not related to Morse, but expresses sympathy.

"People go through hell out there," he said. "I understand his situation."

Morse's family and friends say Saturday's incident marks a tragic turn for a young man who had dreamed of a police career since his childhood, which he spent fishing and playing baseball in Oregon.

They say he was always a straight-arrow kid, a Christian youth counselor who didn't hesitate to break up mischief in the town of Hermiston where he grew up.

"He was not the type to stand there and watch. He was a take-charge type of guy," said Matt Fiocchi, a close childhood friend.

"You can see on the videotape: He's the first guy to do anything. He's always in the middle of things. He always really wanted to make a difference."

Fiocchi, like other friends and relatives, thinks he acted in self defense. Fiocchi says Morse may have "lost his cool a little bit," but not without a reason. A police report quotes Morse as saying he punched the boy, Donovan Jackson, only after the handcuffed teenager grabbed Morse's testicles.

Morse's stepfather, Roger Pettit, defends him: "If Jeremy did that, it's because he was provoked somehow. I mean, that's his character.... He's not going to upright and hit somebody. He just wouldn't do it."

Morse's role in the beating is being scrutinized by four law enforcement agencies. One of them, the federal Justice Department, is investigating for possible civil rights violations.

For some, watching the white officer slam the black teenager to the car, strike him in the face and then wrap thick hands around the youth's neck leaves little doubt about his guilt.

"It's just a rogue police officer," said Assemblyman Jerome Horton (D-Inglewood). "There's no getting around it."

Morse's Inglewood life is a world away from the rural town where he spent much of his youth. Though born in Southern California, he moved as a child to Hermiston, a town of 13,000 in northeast Oregon near the Washington border.

His mother, a prison guard, and father, a warehouse worker, divorced when he was young. Afterward, Morse bounced between the parents' homes.

He was a star pitcher, and a lineman for his high school football team. He also became a leader of a high school Christian youth group called Campus Life.

Morse led younger children on boating trips and Bible study sessions. His friends say he sought leadership roles to help steer children away from the traps of small-town life, such as drinking, drugs and midnight mailbox-bashing.

Even as a youth, they said, Morse's career as a cop seemed predestined. Driving around the town's dusty streets, Morse would never hesitate to intervene when he saw trouble.

"He has a real strong sense of right and wrong," said Deborah Fiocchi, the mother of Morse's best friend. "One time he saw kids throwing rocks at some other kids, and he was so angry, he stopped them and gave them a talking to."

After finishing high school in Southern California, Morse joined the Inglewood force, first as a cadet and a short while later as an officer.

Numerous officers refused to comment about Morse's Inglewood career, citing a departmental gag rule. Officials have refused to say whether Morse had received commendations or been subject to disciplinary actions, saying his personnel records are confidential. His attorney, John D. Barnett, said Morse recently received a department commendation after taking into custody a man armed with a knife. "He took him without killing him. He could have shot him," Barnett said.

But court records also show that two people filed a lawsuit Wednesday, accusing Morse and another officer with beating them in January. In another case, a 22-year-old woman alleged that Morse had struck her with a baton while breaking up a New Year's Eve party.

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