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Echo of Domestic Violence

February 24, 2004

On Friday, Los Angeles Police Officer Ricardo Lizarraga became the first LAPD officer since 1998 to be shot and killed in the line of duty. It was a day the top brass had feared was coming.

In 2003, the year homicides citywide dropped by almost a quarter, shots fired at cops went up 21%. Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton attributes the drop in one and the rise in the other to the same thing: The Police Department's new resolve to go after the leaders of Los Angeles' most notorious criminal street gangs.

Many of the shootings at cops have occurred in South Los Angeles neighborhoods that have been hard hit by gangs and crime. Just two weeks ago, the area's black churches condemned the attacks and called for residents to work with police to find the people behind them. Monday night, church leaders came out again -- carrying candles memorializing the fallen officer.

On one level, Lizarraga's death while answering a domestic-violence call near Western Avenue and 48th Street appears unrelated to gangs. Volatile and unpredictable, domestic disturbances are perilous on their own, accounting for a third of assaults on police officers nationwide. After a woman flagged down their police car and pleaded for help, Lizarraga and his partner went to remove an abusive boyfriend from her apartment. Police say the man fled to a back bedroom, emerged with a gun and shot the 30-year-old officer just below his bulletproof vest.

Police describe suspect Kenrick Johnson, 32 -- arrested within hours after a massive manhunt -- as an active gang member on parole after a robbery conviction. Lizarraga's slaying puts a spotlight on the horrifying availability of guns on the street, the shortage of supervision of parolees and the unacceptable restrictions all of this places on everyday life in South L.A. It also highlights a link between domestic and other acts of violence.

Violence defies tidy categories. Any social worker who deals with young gang members knows how frequently it turns out they witnessed abuse of their mothers or became victims themselves. Researchers say witnesses of domestic violence, whether or not abused themselves, experience more behavior problems, anxiety, depression and aggressive behavior. Harvard public health professor Deborah Prothrow-Stith, coauthor of "Murder Is No Accident," calls domestic violence "the most robust risk factor" for future crimes of violence.

Ricardo Lizarraga, one of just over 9,000 officers policing the second-largest city in the nation, acted to break that cycle. Los Angeles ignores his sacrifice at its peril.

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