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Downtown L.A. residents still reeling after shooting by undercover officer

Locals who have seen Spring and 5th streets transform from gritty to gentrifying in the last decade are quick to express gratitude for the police. But a dose of distrust has arisen since the midday killing.

May 15, 2011|By Joel Rubin, Los Angeles Times
  • LAPD officers investigate the scene where a transient and alleged drug dealer was killed by a plainclothes police officer in the middle of the day.
LAPD officers investigate the scene where a transient and alleged drug… (Los Angeles Times, Bob Chamberlin )

Outside the doors of the Down and Out, a divey downtown bar at the intersection of Spring and 5th streets, two very different worlds collide.

There's the renovated world of upscale lofts, expensive coffee bars and artist studios. And then there's the world of day laborers waiting at bus stops, the mentally ill and homeless who wander up from skid row, and, most of all, drug dealers.

"Pills are that way," bartender Matt Blackwell said as he gestured toward 5th Street. "Crack is down the other way, and heroin down Spring. It's a lot better than it was 10 years ago, but there are still a lot of drugs on this block."

Longtime residents say the corner is far from paradise, but they note that the two worlds have managed to coexist somewhat peacefully. That is, until last week when an undercover police officer shot and killed a man who reportedly threatened him with a knife. The shooting occurred in midday, on a bustling street corner directly in front of the Down and Out's outdoor patio.

The shooting has left the tight-knit group of patrons and bartenders struggling to resolve their appreciation for the work the cops have done to clean up the neighborhood and their suspicions over whether the shooting could have been avoided.

Patrons of the bar, which adorns its walls with mug shots of the rich and famous, say they are not naive. They know who the dealers are and vice versa, but acts of violence are uncommon.

"I've lived around here for seven years and have never felt unsafe," said Kim Henderson, an artist.

Police officials have released a preliminary account of the shooting, based on the version of events given by the officer and his partner, neither of whom has been identified. On Tuesday afternoon around 12:20, the two detectives were approached by 51-year-old Dale Garrett, who police described as a transient and convicted felon with an extensive narcotics record. Garrett allegedly offered to sell one of the officers narcotics and, at some point during the encounter, threatened to kill the detective with a 7-inch folding saw. It is unclear whether the detective identified himself as a police officer or if Garrett tried to stab him. Police officials said the weapon was recovered.

Blackwell, who was feet away when the shooting occurred and watched Garrett die on the street, was quick to praise the LAPD for helping to transform the block from what he said had been lawless and violent, but expressed dismay at the killing.

"I don't know, you don't just shoot a man, handcuff him and let him bleed to death on the street," said Blackwell, who looked skeptical when told of the police account of the shooting.

Jeff Scott, 59, a musician who says he's at the bar "six out of seven nights" each week, didn't necessarily disagree, but took a more hardened view. "If you threaten a cop, they're gonna shoot you. That's just the way it is."

Blackwell, Scott and the others don't like the dealers and their lookouts, who spend days and nights skulking up and down the street. But they are a part of the bar's daily reality. That familiarity, mixed with some distrust toward the police, has made for more than a little concern since the shooting.

"I know all the crooks' names and faces, but I don't know the cops," Henderson said. "I want the cops to get out of their cars and start walking around. Get to know the people who live here."

joel.rubin@latimes.com

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