The images from Lincoln Heights looked ferocious: A running battle between helmeted, baton-wielding police and enraged youths hurling bottles and setting fires in the streets.
The intense reaction to the police shooting of a 14-year-old boy stunned many outsiders, and even shocked many familiar with the bustling neighborhoods east of the Los Angeles River. But the outbursts of violence July 29-30 bared the pent-up frustrations among many young Latinos throughout L.A.'s Eastside, a sprawling, mostly low-income area that has long been the heart of the city’s Mexican American and Mexican immigrant communities.
In fact, the Eastside and the neighboring county area of East Los Angeles have a legacy of police-community tensions dating back decades. The always-difficult balancing act of enforcing the law while maintaining community respect has long been a particular challenge in an area that, as home to about 50 gangs, is one of the most gang-troubled in the city.
The eruption of violence after the July 29 shooting of Jose Antonio Gutierrez stands as a vivid reminder of the potential volatility of numerous neighborhoods in the city. Just as many youths in predominantly African American communities complain about being routinely hassled by police, young Eastsiders and Latinos elsewhere contend that they often are targeted as gangbangers and troublemakers--even when they are not in gangs and don’t “dress down” in cholo garb.
“It’s a way of life around here,” said Joseph Barerra, 24, a Lincoln High School graduate who stocks counters at a local store--and says he has never been affiliated with a gang. “Sometimes they hassle you for no reason.”
Police, however, say some residents clamor for a crackdown on gangs, but youths often complain about heavy-handed tactics.
“We’re between a rock and a hard place,” said Capt. Bruce Haggerty, who heads the Hollenbeck Division, which patrols the neighborhood.
In fact, despite persistent complaints about alleged harassment, lawmakers and police officials say it is the lack of police officers that most bothers Eastside residents. Here, as in so many other communities where gang crime is endemic, there is a constant call for more cops on the beat.
“Nobody can go outside and enjoy themselves because of these gang members,” complained one longtime Lincoln Heights resident who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. “We don’t need this anymore. People are frightened and tired of it.”
In interviews and at a community meeting after the shooting, some residents complained that the corner where Gutierrez was shot is a gang hot spot where youths drink, take drugs and harass passersby day and night. Police have finally beefed up their presence in the area--but only because of the violence after the killing, one woman said.
“If we had as many patrols as we have now,” she said, “this [killing] never would have happened.”
Just 10 days before the shooting, residents from the area block club met with police and a mayoral representative. They requested that a police trailer be placed on the small grassy area across from the street corner.
More than 100 officers clad in riot gear responded to quell the almost three-hour melee July 30, the day after Gutierrez was slain. Police arrested about 25 people, most of them young men. No serious injuries were reported.
Police have called the shooting justified, contending that Gutierrez was killed as he pointed a Tec-9 semiautomatic pistol at uniformed officers. But the youth’s parents and some residents have disputed the official version.
Whatever the conclusions of the various investigations into the shooting, to many in Lincoln Heights the incident underscores unfulfilled expectations arising from LAPD Chief Willie L. Williams’ pledge to implement community policing. That approach, which some residents say has never been put in place, was a cornerstone of the recommendations made by the Christopher Commission after the 1991 beating of Rodney G. King.
To this day, many residents say, communication with the police--in many ways the essence of community policing--is sorely lacking.
“The police have no credibility with the community because there is no communication,” said Councilman Mike Hernandez, an Eastside native who represents the area.
Pockets of Poverty
The councilman was referring specifically to Lincoln Heights, just across the Los Angeles River from Dodger Stadium and Chinatown. Today, Lincoln Heights is largely a working-class, residential community with pockets of poverty and relative affluence.
Hernandez and others say many residents still recall the neighborhood’s last high-profile police shooting--the 1991 slaying of Arturo (Smokey) Jimenez, who was fatally shot by sheriff’s deputies at the Ramona Gardens housing project.
The county ultimately settled a wrongful-death lawsuit, paying $450,000 to Jimenez’s family. That incident also prompted a tense standoff between officers and angry residents, although not nearly as incendiary as the Lincoln Heights clash.
The LAPD’s Hollenbeck Division, housed in an imposing concrete structure along 1st Street in nearby Boyle Heights, is at the vortex of the swirling controversy. The division’s 250 uniformed officers and detectives patrol a 14-square-mile area that includes Lincoln Heights, Boyle Heights and El Sereno.
While there is a strong church leadership in Lincoln Heights, the gangs inevitably claim the first allegiance of many youths.
“We have residents calling and saying, ‘Hey, we don’t want these kids hanging around, we don’t want them gangbanging in our neighborhood,’ ” said Haggerty, 46. “But when we go meet with them [neighborhood youths], they blame us for harassing them.”
The captain is a 24-year police veteran who was a top detective at the flash point of the 1992 riots--Florence and Normandie avenues--when violence broke out there. He acknowledged that the rage shown in the Lincoln Heights confrontation surprised him.
“We did not have any indication that there was that much animosity in that neighborhood,” said Haggerty, who took over the Eastside post in December.
Also taken aback by the vehemence of the reaction was Officer Robert Acosta, the senior lead officer, who has patrolled the area since 1973.
“We’ve never had anything like this,” Acosta said. “A lot of police officers want to work in Hollenbeck because they know a lot of residents will help you. It’s not like other areas where they hate you.”
But the police surprise, critics say, may reflect just how out of touch they are with community youth.
“People’s civil rights are being violated left and right, with no regard for the law,” said Jorge Gonzalez, an attorney in Lincoln Heights who handles police-abuse cases. “The situation on the Eastside is very similar to the situation in South-Central with the black community.”
Police say there is no wholesale violations of rights. Capt. Haggerty says the youthful anger seen in the clashes extends beyond police actions to social and economic factors--the paucity of opportunity evident here as in so many urban communities.
“When people get in oppressed situations, because of the economy and lack of jobs, they tend to lash out,” said Haggerty, who, since the shooting, has been almost constantly on the telephone and in meetings with top police brass and community representatives, including gang members. “And who do they lash out at: the police. We’re the most visible presence. . . . We are not the problem. We are stuck dealing with the results of the problem.”
Contributing to the volatile mix, community leaders say, are high unemployment, substandard education and the anger generated by the harsh Proposition 187 debate and related movements viewed by many Latinos as specifically targeting people of Latin American ancestry.
“It seems like it’s open season on Latinos,” said Frank Villalobos, president of Barrio Planners Inc., an Eastside architectural firm and community service organization. “I think the people are fed up, and I think the youth of the neighborhood are carrying the torch for what the feelings of the community are. Frustrations are running very high out here.”
The entire Eastside, along with neighboring East Los Angeles, has a troubled history of conflict between law enforcement and Latinos.
For many Mexican Americans, two infamous incidents--the “Sleepy Lagoon case” and the “Zoot Suit riots"--have become lasting symbols of injustice and racial hatred.
Sleepy Lagoon, an Eastside swimming hole, was the site of a 1942 killing in which a group of Latino youths were falsely convicted of murder in a racially divisive trial. During that trial, a Los Angeles sheriff’s “expert” testified that people of Mexican descent were biologically predisposed to a “desire to kill or at least draw blood.”
During the 1943 Zoot Suit riots, police stood by while several thousand servicemen and civilians wandered city streets for two weeks, drawing cheers from bystanders as they beat up Latino youths and stripped them of their draped jackets and baggy pants.
More recently, the student walkouts of 1968 and the “Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War” in 1970 marked the area as a hotbed of discontent among young Latinos.
That Chicano moratorium erupted into bloody violence between demonstrators and sheriff’s deputies 25 years ago this month, a fact noted by veterans of those earlier movements. Ruben Salazar, a Times columnist who had become the leading voice for improved conditions for Mexican Americans, was killed that day when a sheriff’s deputy fired a tear-gas projectile into a bar where Salazar was having a beer.
Some Latino activists see little cause for optimism today.
“The sad thing is, things have gotten worse in 25 years for Chicano kids and all Latinos,” said Sal Castro, a leader of the 1968 student walkouts while a teacher at Lincoln High School, blocks from the spot where Gutierrez was killed. Castro now teaches at Belmont High School, a mostly Latino school west of Downtown.
Overcoming such a legacy is not easy. “There’s a trust level that has to be built,” conceded the LAPD’s Haggerty.
At the heart of his plan to rebuild relationships is the much-touted concept of community policing, espoused by Chief Williams, the Christopher Commission and criminologists.
That philosophy stresses close cooperation between police and residents and the early identification and resolution of problems. The approach differs markedly from the tactics long practiced in Los Angeles and elsewhere, which emphasize officer response after problems arise.
A key element, Mayor Richard Riordan said in an interview, was the pressing need for more police in Lincoln Heights. Indeed, the neighborhood is the only one of the three Eastside communities in the Hollenbeck Division that does not have a police storefront.
“One of the first goals ought to be to get a substation in Lincoln Heights, and get more officers as quickly as possible,” said Riordan.
For the past four years, Councilman Hernandez said, he and residents have tried to get community-based policing implemented in Lincoln Heights. One problem, he said, was that the senior lead officer assigned to that area kept changing and there has been no continuity.
After the recent violence, Haggerty said, police intend to accelerate plans to improve contacts in Lincoln Heights with all residents and institutions, including gang members, the clergy, social clubs and businesses. Traditionally, Hernandez and others said, police in Lincoln Heights have concentrated on building bridges with merchants, many of whom live elsewhere, instead of reaching out to residents.
The Eastside already has a high proportion of Latino officers, Haggerty said.
But community activists say that what really is needed is a less confrontational, more conciliatory approach, particularly toward young people.
“No one says we don’t want police,” said Gonzalez, the neighborhood civil rights attorney. “We just don’t want them to violate our rights.”
A current police priority is improving job and recreation opportunities--one officer already is assigned full-time to youth summer sports activities. However, police can obviously do little to alleviate such intractable problems as unemployment and a shortage of playing fields.
Despite the imposing barriers, many longtime community leaders in Lincoln Heights voiced measured optimism. They cite the reinvigorated push for community policing and the fact that the recent disturbances did not escalate into a riot.
“There was great potential for violence and burning, but that didn’t happen,” noted Father Gabriel Gonzales, pastor of Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church, a few blocks from the site of the police shooting. “I think that says something about what people feel for their community, that the community is important to them. What did happen was a tremendous expression of anger at the police about what they considered an injustice. That is something that has to be dealt with.”
Times staff writer Ian James contributed to this story.
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Lincoln Heights, which has a population of 27,000, was known simply as East Los Angeles when it first was settled in the late 1800s. The neighborhood adopted its current name about 1920 after the construction of Abraham Lincoln High School on North Broadway. The early settlers were largely German and Irish immigrants. After World War I, Italians came in large numbers. In the 1940s, Mexican immigrants began to fill the community, a movement that accelerated in the last 15 years or so. The ‘80s also brought the latest wave of immigrants--Chinese and Vietnamese families. The population today is about 70% Latino, 25% Asian and 5% whites, blacks and others. Among Latinos, the residents include recent arrivals from Mexico and Mexican Americans who have lived in the same neighborhood for decades. North Broadway, the district’s main thoroughfare with shops, fast-food restaurants and a Buddhist temple, cuts through Lincoln Heights.