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66 Arrested in Sweep at Troubled Watts Project : Police: Officers say the effort is part of crackdown on firing guns to mark new year. Residents, who have protested shooting of man, charge harassment.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Police officers swept through the troubled Imperial Courts housing project early Monday, making scores of arrests in what they said was an effort to cut down on the number of residents who celebrate the new year by shooting guns into the air.

The action, however, enraged many residents of the Watts housing project, where tensions have been high since officers shot and killed 29-year-old Henry Peco last month during a power blackout.

Perry Crouch, who helped form the Henry Peco Justice Committee, told reporters Monday afternoon that many in the project believe the arrests were in retaliation for the group’s activities, including its demand for an independent investigation of the Peco shooting.

“If you are trying to make it safe for New Year’s,” Crouch said, “what does a person with a jaywalking ticket or a traffic ticket have to do with that.”

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Others accused police of forcing their way into residences, illegally searching some and threatening people--charges the police denied.

“If anyone believes our officers acted illegally, we would be very interested in investigating those allegations,” said Lt. Sergio Diaz of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Southeast Division. “I’m afraid some of these allegations are an attempt to deter us from our jobs.”

Diaz said the arrests were part of a multifaceted “gunfire reduction program” that was started two years ago to stop what had become a tradition of people shooting into the air to herald the New Year.

In all, police arrested 66 people, most on outstanding warrants. Of the arrests, 10 were for felonies. The remainder were for such misdemeanors as public drinking or traffic violations. No guns were confiscated, police said.

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Diaz denied that Imperial Courts had been singled out for a pre-holiday arrest sweep, saying similar actions took place during the weekend at two nearby housing projects and at locations outside the projects.

LAPD spokesman Lt. Fred Nixon said these areas of the city were targeted for special attention because “the greatest concentration of indiscriminate gunfire has historically been there.”

“This is third year we have done this,” Nixon said. “In previous years we have done it in other areas of the city.

“Various housing projects have produced a very high concentration of gunfire. We believe that we could possibly reduce that level by serving arrest warrants as close as possible to New Year’s Eve on the theory that in serving arrest warrants we would take guns into custody.”

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Jesse Brewer, a retired LAPD assistant chief and now a member of the city Police Commission, said police have made arrests after reports of gunfire but had never launched a preemptive effort.

He described the gunfire reduction program as a publicity campaign and a program under which citizens are encouraged to report their neighbors to police if they see them shooting guns on the holiday.

“This is something new, going in beforehand,” to make arrests, Brewer said.

According to Diaz, officers made some arrests on outstanding warrants at Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs housing projects during the weekend, but were hampered by rainstorms.

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About 35 officers began arresting people at Imperial Courts before dawn Monday, he said.

Relations between police officers and residents have been strained since the Peco shooting last month, which police said was triggered when officers were fired on during an electrical failure. Peco’s supporters contend he was unarmed.

In one incident last week, police were confronted by nearly 100 angry residents after a patrol car ran over a shrine built in the grass as a Peco memorial.

On Monday, a knot of residents and members of Peco’s family gathered outside the Imperial Court’s recreation center and spoke angrily to reporters.

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“We’re tired of being mistreated,” said Theresa Allison, an aunt of Peco. “It’s not just today. It’s tomorrow and the next day and it will go on and on.”

Sharon Holmes, who has lived in the project 13 years, said officers pushed their way into her apartment about 5:30 a.m. after she answered the door and rushed through the dwelling, terrifying her three young daughters.

“They just said they were here to pick up somebody named Martin,” Holmes said. “I don’t know anybody named Martin.”

She said they searched the apartment for about 40 minutes.

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Diaz said the department had not considered the ongoing tensions between police and Imperial Courts residents before staging the sweep. “Just because those tensions exist,” he said, “we can’t stop doing what we know is right.”


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