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Death Fans Tensions in Pasadena

Man shot by police is buried. Chief asks FBI to probe the case and another incident.

May 08, 2004|David Pierson and Kristina Sauerwein | Times Staff Writers

A northwest Pasadena man who was killed in a shootout with officers was buried Friday, days after the city's police chief asked the FBI to investigate the shooting.

Hundreds of family and friends of Maurice Clark attended the emotional service at Lincoln Avenue Baptist Church, blocks away from where the 30-year-old was killed in a gun battle with two officers.

Residents and authorities have been divided over whether the shooting on April 24 was justified, and hostilities between law enforcement and residents in northwest Pasadena are running high.

Residents told authorities at recent community meetings that police routinely harass, verbally threaten and use excessive force against young African Americans.

"I see it every day. If you're black, you get pulled over," said Clark's cousin, Helena Dixon, standing outside the church waiting for the funeral to begin. "My little brother gets harassed all the time."

Although the 32-year-old Dixon applauded Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian's decision to ask federal agents to probe Clark's death, she said that she had no confidence in the city's police.

Tensions were climbing at the time of Clark's shooting because of an earlier incident involving police that left a man on life support at Huntington Memorial Hospital.

LaMont Robinson, 30, suffered severe brain damage during an altercation with police who used an arm hold against his neck to prevent him from swallowing what they believed was crack cocaine.

The FBI review also will aim to determine if Robinson suffered his injury as a result of being choked or because he ingested drugs, said Janet Pope, a police spokeswoman.

"Quite frankly, I [asked the FBI] because I thought it would make a strong statement," said Melekian. "I have nothing to hide."

"I also thought it would restore confidence in the Police Department," he added.

The decision was surprising because it is uncommon for a police chief to ask a federal agency to investigate his department.

Attempting to temper some of the anger, Melekian organized two public meetings that drew several hundred people. He said that by establishing personal relationships between officers and residents, things would improve in northwest Pasadena -- a low-income area north of the Foothill Freeway and west of Lake Avenue recognized as one of the oldest black neighborhoods in Los Angeles County.

The president of the NAACP's Pasadena branch, Joe Brown, accompanied Melekian to the public meetings, which were packed with angry residents.

"Situations like these can spin out of control quickly," Brown said. "Emotions are very high."

Melekian encouraged those who feel wronged by the police to file formal complaints. But some residents said they fear that doing so would result in police retaliation.

During the meetings, residents asked that Melekian reassign gang enforcement unit Officer Keith Gomez, who shot Clark and also was at the scene when Robinson was injured, though he did not participate in the restraining of the man. Melekian said Gomez was not a "problem officer" and no disciplinary action is pending.

Gomez "did nothing wrong," said Melekian, who has headed the Pasadena department since 1996 and is in the running to become police chief in Dallas.

According to police, Gomez and Officer Javier Aguilar saw Clark acting suspiciously at Howard Street and Lincoln Avenue April 24. They confronted him after spotting a handgun in his waistband. Clark then ran, firing shots at the officers as they chased him and returned fire, authorities said.

Clark, the father of three young children, was described by police as a felon and a known gang member. His family says Clark had no gang ties and does not believe he shot at officers the night he was killed.

Brown said he believed Gomez "could best serve this city in another capacity. His reputation makes him ineffective in the northwest, even if he is exonerated [by the FBI probe]. He has a negative notoriety -- right, wrong or perceived."

Brown said he had received more than 100 inquiries and was urging residents to reserve judgment about the two incidents until the FBI concluded its investigation.

The FBI launched its probe this week and will forward its findings to the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said Laura Bosley, an agency spokeswoman. The U.S. attorney's office is also reviewing the case.

Though Clark's death marks the first officer-involved shooting fatality in a decade in the neighborhood, Melekian said some officers needed to change their approach toward residents in the northwest area.

"I've heard things that bother me," he said about some officers' attitudes. "There seems to be a profound disrespect. I don't doubt that."

After Clark's funeral, some longtime residents spoke about a growing sense of despair.

"There's just a sadness in this neighborhood," said Raymond Muhammad, 64. "This is a loss of a good person."

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