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Expert Says Police Must Work to Erase Bias Against Latinos

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It didn’t take long for Christopher Commission member Leo Estrada to determine that sweeping changes were needed to rid the Los Angeles Police Department of brutality aggravated by racism.

In testimony before the commission, formed in the wake of the videotaped beating of Rodney G. King, Estrada heard police officials complain that bad management in the department had set a tone that tolerated brutality and disrespect by officers on the street.

He also heard Los Angeles residents tell of bitter, sometimes painful, encounters with police officers who peppered their comments with racial epithets, or used excessive force.

The commission eventually issued a 228-page report that blamed the department’s leaders, including Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, for failing to take steps to stop brutality. It also urged Gates to step down.

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“With the exception of officer-involved shootings, which happened more often to blacks, Latinos were more often victims than any other group,” according to data reviewed by the commission, Estrada said.

In the first weekend of August, the issue of police brutality and excessive force became focused squarely on the Latino community when a 19-year-old Ramona Gardens youth, Arturo Jimenez, was shot to death by a sheriff’s deputy.

The case inflamed tension and mistrust between East Los Angeles residents and law enforcement authorities dating to World War II, when Mexican-Americans clad in zoot suits were assaulted by sailors and rogue police officers in Los Angeles.

In interviews and at demonstrations, Ramona Gardens residents, Latino activists and officials called for an investigation into the case by an independent panel styled after the Christopher Commission. Investigations by the Sheriff’s Department and the district attorney’s office are under way.

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Jimenez’s death also prompted Latinos to take a harder look at what their neighborhoods can expect from implementation of the Christopher Commission recommendations.

Of particular interest have been proposals that the Police Department revamp its complaint system, improve human relations training and Spanish-language training for new recruits, and expand community-oriented policing efforts that stress crime-prevention programs.

“A few months ago, we focused on these issues in terms of the LAPD, but it is clear they overlap into other law enforcement agencies,” said Estrada, a UCLA demographer. “The Jimenez case requires that the public demand that Christopher Commission-like recommendations be applied across the board.”

Latino leaders have been working on strategies for monitoring the performance of law enforcement authorities and have been compiling a list of candidates to replace Gates, who has said he will retire in April.

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“More people are getting involved, speaking their piece and holding law enforcement agencies and bureaucrats accountable for their actions,” said Connie Armenta, a spokeswoman for UNO--the United Neighborhoods Organization.

“Every one of us has had a neighbor or relative subjected to some kind of police brutality,” said Sylvia Robledo, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Comision Femenil. “I think it is time that Los Angeles put a mirror in front of itself and decide what it is going to do about this.”

In testimony before the Christopher Commission, some Latinos complained that police officers showed them little respect--a problem reflected in the commission’s study of squad car computer messages, Estrada said.

“Lt. says learn Spanish bonehead . . . Sgt. says tell them to go back to Mexico,” one officer messaged.

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“Hi . . . just got mexercise for the night,” messaged another.

But, while some Latinos who came before the commission complained about police abuses, Estrada said others were strongly supportive of the LAPD’s performance, particularly with the citywide increase in crime and gang violence.

“When we asked the Latino community what they wanted, many talked about the need for a strong and tough police force on the streets,” Estrada said. “The issue for other Latinos was a lack of respect from officers.”

A Los Angeles Times Poll conducted in July found that 67% of Latino residents in the city believed incidents of police brutality were very common, while 85% of blacks and 54% of Anglos reached the same conclusion. The poll found that 35% of Latinos, 48% of blacks and 21% of Anglos felt that racist feelings among officers were very common.

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Jimenez was shot to death while attending a birthday party Aug. 3 by a county sheriff’s deputy who said the young man threatened him with a flashlight after using it to knock another deputy at the scene unconscious.

Witnesses, however, contend it was the deputies who provoked the incident by striking a young man in a group celebrating the birthday of a resident. Jimenez, they said, began yelling at officers for punching his friend, but did nothing threatening.

An autopsy of Jimenez, an acknowledged gang member, showed that he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.20%--more than twice the legal limit of 0.08% for driving. Coroner’s tests also showed that Jimenez’s blood had recently absorbed a large dose of PCP, known as angel dust.

One of the questions raised by the Ramona Gardens residents was why sheriff’s deputies were in an area already patrolled by the LAPD.

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But Sheriff’s officials, who operate in unincorporated East Los Angeles, said they have authority to enter the project location if they are in pursuit of a suspect, as they said was the case in this instance.

Eastside residents and community activists made strong pleas for a tough stance from two Latino elected officials who were relatively quiet about the Rodney King affair--County Supervisor Gloria Molina and City Councilman Richard Alatorre.

“Public outrage has to be expressed by Latinos in a high level of authority,” said Raul Ruiz, a professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge. “If they do not do it, our community is left to fend for itself.”

Molina was vacationing in Mexico when the shooting occurred. But she sent a letter to Sheriff Sherman Block asking for a report on how complaints alleging excessive force are handled. She also asked whether the Sheriff’s Department intended to make any policy changes similar to recommendations of the Christopher Commission.

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Molina was a City Council member when the King affair erupted in March, but an aide, Robert Alaniz, said Molina found it hard to criticize Gates at that time. “When she went on the council, she had an excellent relationship with Gates--when she needed him, in terms of law enforcement issues in the 1st District, he was always there,” Alaniz said.

Two days after the Jimenez shooting, Alatorre drove to Ramona Gardens to tell 200 angry residents that the district attorney’s office was investigating the case.

“The residents I’ve talked to all have one story about what happened, and that story is different than the one the sheriff’s deputies tell,” Alatorre told reporters. “I sort of lean toward the version told by the residents.”

A week later, Alatorre, told his City Council colleagues, “Because of the growing incidents of violence, the growing incidents of the use of excessive force, it is time they (the supervisors), too, examine the way in which law enforcement is dealt in the County of Los Angeles.”

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The City Council passed a measure asking for such an investigation, but Block said the issues raised were already being addressed.


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