Residents of the neighboring Pico Gardens and Aliso Village housing projects on Los Angeles' Eastside say tensions with police are rising after several years of relative calm. Activists marched to LAPD headquarters last week to voice their discontent.
"Instead of having a dialogue with the people here, the police charge in and treat us all like criminals," said Esperanza Vazquez, a grandmother who says she and several of her children were subjected to physical and verbal abuse during a police sweep through the largely Latino projects early July 10.
Authorities deny wrongdoing, attributing criticism to anti-police sentiment in the gang-plagued complex. "My officers have behaved for years with nothing but professionalism, courtesy and respect for the people in Pico-Aliso," said Capt. Bob Medina, commanding officer of the Hollenbeck division, which covers the area.
The July 10 police operation, involving more than 100 officers, followed the shooting of a motorcycle officer at a nearby intersection shortly after midnight. Two men in gang clothes were seen running toward the projects, police say, prompting officers throughout the city to descend on the area. The wounded lawman, Officer Gregory J. Nichols, a 12-year veteran, is recovering. No suspects are in custody.
During the sweep, Vazquez and other residents said, officers pointed guns at occupants and threw people to the ground. Two of Vazquez's daughters and two sons were arrested on charges of interfering with police--charges they have denied.
Relations between police and the neighborhood had been deteriorating for weeks, according to Pico-Aliso residents, who cite various instances of alleged police overreaction leading to the police sweep. Hoping to reduce tensions, residents are seeking a meeting with Mayor Richard Riordan and Police Chief Willie L. Williams.
According to Medina, a small corps of anti-police activists are fomenting opposition within the projects, which house about 6,000 tenants in barracks-style, World War II-vintage townhouses and apartment blocks. The densely populated complex is home turf to at least eight gangs, most of them deadly rivals despite sporadic truces and ever-shifting alliances.
Hours after the officer was shot, someone gunned down a suspected neighborhood gang member, leaving the victim paralyzed and spurring another round of police searches and interrogations that further aggravated some residents.
Those complaining, said Medina, are "just a small group of people who do not approve of the presence of the LAPD in Pico-Aliso."
Specifically, Medina blamed the leadership of Proyecto Pastoral, the activist social service arm of Dolores Mission Roman Catholic Church, which serves the district. Employing the social justice precepts of liberation theology, former pastor Father Gregory Boyle, other clergy and lay workers have emphasized strong ties with all community segments, including gang members.
Father Thomas H. Smolich, executive director of the Proyecto Pastoral, dismissed suggestions that the church group was anti-police or was stirring up opposition as being ridiculous.
"It isn't a question of what the police do; it's a question of how they do it," Smolich said. "If we're the trouble-makers, then the community is the trouble-maker."
On the night of July 10, Smolich said, witnesses stated that at least one officer had publicly shouted that "Mexicans" should go back to their ranches, rankling a population that is predominantly of Mexican ancestry.
Police deny such allegations. "I would say these are just general complaints, meant to bring discredit to the Police Department," said Medina, a 31-year police veteran.
Although relations between police and the community have long been frayed in the projects, Medina and residents say tensions had abated in the last three years, after complaints that officers were rounding up suspected gang members, driving them to a nearby industrial area and beating them up. Police vehemently denied the brutality allegations, but authorities and neighborhood residents launched what both sides describe as a beneficial dialogue--informal talks that community representatives say have now broken down.
"The police tend to generalize and treat us all like gang members," said Rosa Campos, a resident and member of Comite Pro Paz en El Barrio, a group that seeks to reduce violence. "We respect the police, and we recognize that the officers have an important job to do, but that doesn't give them the right to mistreat us."