When Police Chief Willie L. Williams appears before the Los Angeles City Council today, he’d better have some good answers.
Why was Officer Michael A. Falvo assigned to a gang detail, in which police deal with situations that can blow up easily? Was this the best job for a cop who was one of 44 “problem officers” singled out by the Christopher Commission because each was the subject of six or more allegations of excessive force or improper tactics during the five years preceding the police beating of Rodney G. King?
Falvo’s involvement in the police shooting of 14-year-old Antonio Gutierrez raises a red flag, not just to angry community activists in Lincoln Heights, where the killing of the teen-ager last Saturday set off two nights of disturbances, but to anyone concerned about improving the LAPD. If the officer’s use of force was reasonable, the chief should make that clear as soon as possible. He also should release more information from the police investigation of the case.
According to police, Antonio Gutierrez was preparing to fire a semiautomatic gun at officers when he was shot. Tests show no identifiable fingerprints on the pistol. Can it be determined that the gun indeed was in the youth’s hand and that he was pointing the weapon at the officers?
Did other officers draw their weapons? Did other officers believe the only way to control the teen-ager was to shoot him? The pistol was found on the other side of a fence, across from where the boy fell. How did it get there? These and other questions must be addressed quickly to increase confidence in the LAPD and calm a tense community. That is one reason it is encouraging that the FBI has now entered the case.
The LAPD has complained, with some justification, that it often is second-guessed unfairly. But Falvo’s record is a cause for legitimate concern. Although he has undergone counseling, according to the department, this assignment calls into question how much progress the LAPD has made since the release of the Christopher Commission report.
The commission documented the department’s sorry history of ignoring many citizen complaints and attributed an inexcusable level of excessive force to inadequate supervision, lax management and too little officer discipline. The panel also addressed the department’s routinely insensitive treatment of blacks, Latinos, Asians and women. Its powerful report was intended to help change the culture at Parker Center. Some of that change has occurred. It’s important to remember that the Police Department has a necessary and difficult job, which can be aided by timely disclosure in awful incidents like the one in Lincoln Heights. And no good aim is served by those who seek to inflame high emotions stirred by this case. Perhaps Officer Falvo reacted exactly as he should have last Saturday. But Lincoln Heights needs answers. So does all of Los Angeles.