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Insults Add to the Tragedy

Sadness and anger are natural reactions to the shooting death of policewoman Tina Kerbrat, the first female Los Angeles police officer killed in the line of duty. But anguish must not lead us to wrongly place blame for what appears to have been no more than an utterly brutal, random and senseless act of violence.

Officer Kerbrat, a 34-year-old mother of two, never had a chance to defend herself. She was shot in the face while preparing to step out of a police car to question two men who were drinking in public. Her murderer pulled a gun and fired so fast that Kerbrat slumped back onto the seat before her partner--who returned the gunman’s fire and killed him--realized that she had been hit.

Kerbrat’s killer was an illegal immigrant from El Salvador. Although Jose Amaya, 32, had been arrested once because of his immigration status, the man had no other criminal history. That, unfortunately, did not keep Police Chief Daryl Gates from lashing out at the Immigration and Naturalization Service and making other emotional remarks that many Salvadorans find insulting. Gates labeled the killer “an El Salvadoran drunk--a drunk who doesn’t belong here,” then referred to him with several epithets.

INS officials responded calmly to Gates’ outburst. They pointed out that, under existing law and recent court decisions, Amaya was not subject to immediate deportation like other illegal aliens, but was entitled, as a Salvadoran, to a full-scale hearing and had requested one. Sadly, that made it possible for him to remain in this country to commit a brutal act. But those safeguards are there for a good reason--to protect the rights of hundreds of thousands of Central Americans who are in this country as refugees. The overwhelming majority are law-abiding residents who must surely share the grief that this community feels at the loss of a public servant like Kerbrat.

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This isn’t the first time Gates has spoken with his heart, not his head. Given the circumstances, his remarks--beneath the dignity of his office and utterly inappropriate to the situation--can be understood if not forgiven. But when emotions have calmed, Gates must apologize to the Salvadoran community.


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