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Archive for Saturday, July 16, 2005

L.A. shooting widens divisions between community, police

July 16, 2005

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— Dozens of protesters wave signs branding police as "baby killers." They heckle passing police cars as lines of baton-toting officers keep close watch on the restless crowd.

A police shootout this week that took the life of a toddler whose father held her as a shield has brought irate residents back to the streets of Watts, where 40 summers ago a deadly riot came to symbolize America's urban despair.

"We've got some trigger-happy policemen that don't belong on that force," Joeanne Gibson, 47, said at a growing makeshift memorial for the young victim, Suzie Pena. "I don't think they intended to shoot the baby, yet it could've been done another way."

The child was killed by a SWAT team bullet on July 10 in the arms of her father, Jose Pena, 34, as he fired dozens of rounds at officers, wounding one of them. The father, who police said was drunk and high, also was killed in the shootout outside his used-car business.

Suzie Pena will be buried Saturday after a funeral Mass at a local church.

The episode has left officers who took part in the gunbattle traumatized and prompted police leaders to use extreme caution in dealing with protesters.

"Emotions are heightened, particularly in communities like this that are disadvantaged and disenfranchised," Deputy Police Chief Earl Paysinger said. "We have to be very thoughtful when we provide policing in these communities."

Sophie Martinez, 2, right, and Leslie Cortez, 7, place flowers at a memorial for 19-month-old Suzie Marie Pena on Friday in the Watts section of Los Angeles. It's been 40 years since a deadly riot in Watts came to symbolize America's urban despair. But tensions flared anew this week after police fatally shot the 19-month-old and her father, who clutched the girl as he fired on police responding to a 911 call.

Sophie Martinez, 2, right, and Leslie Cortez, 7, place flowers at a memorial for 19-month-old Suzie Marie Pena on Friday in the Watts section of Los Angeles. It's been 40 years since a deadly riot in Watts came to symbolize America's urban despair. But tensions flared anew this week after police fatally shot the 19-month-old and her father, who clutched the girl as he fired on police responding to a 911 call.

The death of the girl was the latest in a series of bloody incidents involving the LAPD in inner-city neighborhoods.

Six months ago, police shot and killed 13-year-old Devin Brown, a black teenager who was behind the wheel of a stolen car that backed into a police cruiser after a chase. A Hispanic officer fired 10 shots at the driver.

Brown was shot three days after prosecutors declined to press charges against a Los Angeles police officer filmed repeatedly striking a black suspect with a metal flashlight.

This week's deadly gunbattle is the first police crisis faced by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who urged the diverse city to "dare to dream" when he was recently sworn in as mayor.

He expressed sorrow over the girl's death and the wounding of the officer and asked the public to stay calm and reserve judgment until an investigation into the shooting is complete.

In a move that might help pacify the community, Villaraigosa proposed four new appointees - including a black civil rights leader and a businesswoman active in gay issues - to the civilian Police Commission.

Police Chief William Bratton, whose crime-fighting success and community outreach generally receive high marks, expressed dismay at the girl's death - but reminded residents that the father shot at officers before they shot back.

Still, tensions are simmering in Watts, a community of 65,000 people where Hispanics have replaced blacks as the majority.

Vacant storefronts still line the main boulevards and graffiti and discarded furniture are everywhere.

Residents said relations with police have also changed little over the years.

"You don't hear about innocent white people getting killed by the police, I just don't see those stories," said Watts resident Kevin Sloan, 29, a part-time Wal-Mart worker and student with aspirations of teaching. "It's usually Hispanic or blacks."

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