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Privacy in Short Supply at Street Slaying Scenes

In parts of L.A., many learn of a loved one's death by coming upon it. Their grief becomes public.

October 22, 2003|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

Keiyontate Bailey's father learned of his murder on the sidewalk, standing in front of a crowd of people, alongside yellow police tape -- a harrowing moment of private anguish, revealed in public.

Such moments are replayed over and over in South and Central Los Angeles. Family members and friends frequently learn what Los Angeles Police Department Det. Brent Josephson calls "the worst news someone can ever hear in their life" by word of mouth or sight, while standing outside in front of strangers. The first moments or hours of their grief are often spent on the sidewalk, waiting for police to wrap up the crime scene or offer more information.

The experience can further traumatize the bereaved, some experts say. And for police and medical workers, the unexpected arrival of horrified friends and relatives at crime scenes can pose practical difficulties, tying up officers and complicating investigations.

People cry or argue at the yellow tape. They beg to be allowed to see or touch their dead loved ones, make threats, or rush officers. Or they stand quietly, alone and suffering.

It's not unusual for the LAPD to require extra units at homicide scenes -- not to aid in the investigation, but simply to handle the emotion. Often there are eight officers employed to keep people away in the LAPD's South Bureau, more than half the total number of officers deployed on some shifts. After the recent killing of a popular businessman, nearly two dozen officers were required to form a human barricade against the grief-stricken crowd.

Even when mourners pose no threat to officers, police describe these scenes as one of the more stressful aspects of their job.

"There's that cry -- that certain cry," said Det. Jerry Moya. "That sound of mothers wailing."

LAPD Officer Alex Lambert recalled guarding the body of a teenage boy in heavy fog when the boy's mother suddenly burst onto the scene. She threw herself against Lambert, trying to get by, screaming, " 'Let me see my baby!' " Lambert said.

"That was tough," he remembered.

There was no such scene at the site of the Keiyontate Bailey homicide last week -- only a brief tense moment and a quietly painful aftermath.

Bailey, a 19-year-old West Los Angeles college student from Ladera Heights, was shot in mid-morning along South Budlong Avenue and taken to a hospital. Police at the scene, unsure of his identity, could not answer his father's frenzied questions.

But while the father waited in confusion at the yellow tape, an acquaintance, who had heard of Bailey's death by word of mouth, broke the news. The father lunged off the sidewalk into the street, striding aimlessly back and forth, and crying to no one in particular, "He's gone!"

The cry was like a small grenade going off in a nearby knot of Bailey's friends, neighbors and family members. Everyone scattered, as if something had hit them, each person bolting in a different direction.

"Lord have mercy," murmured one friend. "Oh my God, oh my God," another kept saying. First one friend then another began sobbing loudly. A young woman in the arms of a companion broke into long wails.

As heart-wrenching as such scenes are, they are difficult to avoid, said South Bureau Assistant LAPD Chief Earl Paysinger. In South Los Angeles, "the world we police is very tightknit," he said, "and people find out quickly by word of mouth. It is now, and it always has been, an issue for the police department, and something officers handling scenes really struggle with."

Under the best circumstances, detectives officially notify family members of a loved one's murder privately, in the company of clergy or supportive relatives. Many crime scenes draw no notice and remain quiet.

But the frequency of homicides in the LAPD's South Bureau, and what officers call "neighborhood 911" -- the tendency for news in South Los Angeles to spread rapidly through neighborhood networks -- also make street scenes hard to avoid.

Misunderstandings with police are a common result, said the Rev. Ferroll Robbins, a police chaplain who also runs Loved Ones Victims Services. Officers who keep their professional distance are sometimes seen as cold.

The LAPD has a custom-designed mobile home for homicide scenes, for example. It was originally equipped to aid detectives and give family members shelter, support and privacy. But since a reorganization, it has been kept in the harbor area, and it has not been used in several years in the three police divisions that lead the city in killings, say detectives.

More widespread is the use of police chaplains and crisis volunteers, who are available 24 hours a day.

At their best, volunteers and chaplains can function as mediators between police and mourning onlookers. But the volunteers are called to just a small fraction of cases in which people are killed or wounded -- a dozen incidents a month in a city where, in an average month, there are more than 40 homicides and more than 100 people injured by gunfire.

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