LOCAL

Grief hangs over department as LAPD mourns fallen officers

Law EnforcementTransportation DisastersLos Angeles Police DepartmentHuman Interest
Though the officers who've died worked in separate divisions, the cumulative effect weighs heavily on the LAPD
Flags outside the LAPD's downtown headquarters were already lowered Friday when Det. Ernest Allen died

It was Friday afternoon when Los Angeles Police Cmdr. Andrew Smith noticed the voicemail, a message from a friend in the Fire Department. His friend was at the scene of a crash in Beverly Hills.

"I'm really sorry to hear about the death of your officer," he said.

Smith first thought it was an old message about Nicholas Lee, the LAPD officer killed two months ago when a dump truck smashed into his patrol car on winding Loma Vista Drive. But when Smith called back, he realized his friend was talking about a new accident — this one involving another out-of-control truck that slammed into the pickup of an off-duty detective just yards away from where Lee died.

"I said, 'Oh man, it's another one. The same spot,'" Smith recalled Saturday. "There are a few moments of dread where you think it's going to be one of your best friends. Even when you find out it isn't, it doesn't make it any better."

The crash that killed Det. Ernest Allen on Friday sent a fresh wave of grief across the LAPD, where four officers have died in traffic-related incidents in the last two months.

Besides the two killed on Loma Vista Drive, veteran motorcycle Officer Chris Cortijo died last month after being hit by a woman who prosecutors allege was high on cocaine. Last weekend, Officer Roberto Sanchez was killed during an early morning pursuit in Harbor City. Authorities allege a 20-year-old man intentionally slammed his SUV into Sanchez's patrol car to help a friend the officer was following.

That same Saturday, longtime Officer George Nagata died of what appeared to be a heart attack while working at the LAPD's Central Division.

Each of the officers who died worked in different divisions, but the cumulative effect has weighed heavily on the department. Officers have gathered after hours to talk about their fallen friends. They text their colleagues reminders: Stay safe. Come home to your family.

"Walking around the hallway in the headquarters building or in another one of the stations, you can certainly feel — I don't want to say gloom — but a feeling of depression," Smith said.

At the LAPD's Harbor Division, where Sanchez was assigned, written messages cover the front of his locker, No. 176. "RIP my brother," one reads. "My prayers are with your family," reads another.

Outside the Hollywood station, a memorial star bears Lee's name and his final end of watch: March 7, 2014. Officers gathered for the unveiling ceremony two weeks ago, watching as Lee's young daughters put their hands on their father's name. His mother sobbed as she placed her head on his star.

Flags outside the LAPD's downtown headquarters were already lowered Friday when Allen died. Officers donned black mourning bands on their badges. Counselors, already busy from the weeks before, continued their rounds to various stations, as did Chief Charlie Beck.

"We are all grieving," Beck said in an interview Saturday. "But here we have no opportunity to move beyond the first stage of grieving before we suffer another loss."

In Beck's 37 years in the department, he said, more than 55 officers have been killed in the line of duty. Five officers have died on duty since he became chief in 2008.

"It is hard for everyone what happened in recent weeks," the chief said. "People start putting things in perspective. It does make loved ones worry.... They know it is a danger of the profession."

For Beck, Sanchez's death touched especially close to home.

Back on Aug. 2, 1979, Beck, then a young gang officer working in southeast L.A., was driving behind another officer, James Choquette, to a robbery call. Suddenly a Cadillac — with a drunk driver behind the wheel — smashed into the side of Choquette's cruiser, the chief recalled.

Beck jumped out of his car and ran to Choquette's side. Moments later, the officer died in his arms.

Beck said he immediately flashed back to the scene when he saw the wreck that killed Sanchez. Like Choquette, Sanchez's cruiser had been struck in the driver's side.

"It was awful to see it again," Beck said. "It is something, as a young police officer, you never forget. The memory never goes away."

On Saturday, LAPD officers remembered Allen, 52. He joined the LAPD 27 years ago, working assignments at the department's 77th Street, Wilshire and Rampart stations. He was most recently assigned to the Southwest Division.

Sgt. Barry Montgomery said he met Allen at a Harley-Davidson event about a decade ago. Once the pair realized they were both LAPD officers, they clicked. About four years later, they found themselves both assigned to Southwest.

Allen was a knowledgeable detective and a friendly, genuine man, Montgomery said, always taking time to smile and say hello to people he passed in the hallway, even if he didn't know them well.

"Once he took you into his circle and made you his friend, you really felt like you were a special person," Montgomery said. "And I know he had a lot of friends. But I always felt like I was special."

Allen was also a devoted son, Montgomery said, constantly checking in with his mother to make sure she had what she needed. "He was just crazy about his mom."

Sanchez, a married 32-year-old, spent six years with the LAPD, working in the West L.A. and Newton divisions before his Harbor assignment. His funeral has been scheduled for Wednesday at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles.

For four days, fellow officers and family members kept vigil at a hospital where Cortijo, 51, was taken after his motorcycle was hit. At his funeral Mass, he was remembered as a man who loved his job — and was good at it, stopping some 3,000 drunk drivers in his 26-year career. Recently, he was named the Valley's motor officer of the quarter.

Friends said Lee, 40, also was dedicated to policing, spending the majority of his career working in Hollywood. They described him as a confident professional — and an even better family man. A booklet distributed at his funeral was full of photos of his family, including the beaming faces of his daughters, their arms wrapped around their father.

Lee, Cortijo and Sanchez were among those honored this week as part of the department's annual memorial ceremony. On Thursday, officials unveiled a new black marble wall bearing the names of fallen officers outside LAPD headquarters. Inside, they read the names of those officers, who will also be recognized with street signs marking where they were killed.

There, Beck spoke about the string of officer deaths.

He quoted Winston Churchill: "If you're going through hell, keep going."

kate.mather@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

matt.stevens@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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