Amid the densely packed apartments and Latino food vendors in the Huntington Beach barrio of Oakview, the sight of a police cruiser rolling down the street has long prompted mixed feelings among residents.
But the controversial police shooting last month of a teenager allegedly holding a toy gun has added a level of tension.
In the wake of the shooting, residents protested at City Hall, demanding a full investigation. Police allege that gang members in the neighborhood have threatened to kill the officer who fired the shots.
Oakview is one of the poorest and highest-crime neighborhoods in the city. Officials have struggled for years to revitalize the troubled district off Beach Boulevard with projects that include building a community center and establishing youth services and community policing programs.
The shooting, many residents say, points to how far residents and police have to go to reach common ground.
Young men accuse police officers of making them feel unwelcome in their neighborhood through a campaign of harassment. Some mothers, with children in tow, smile nervously and walk away quickly when they see a patrol car driving by.
But others, especially older residents, praise the police for fighting gang violence and drug crime. Knowing their views are unpopular among neighbors, however, they offer their opinions in private, sometimes actually hiding their faces from view.
“If they weren’t here, then things would be out of control,” said one woman, hidden away in a back room of the police substation. The woman, who said she is trying to keep her own 19-year-old son out of a local gang, expressed relief that police are “doing their job.”
The shooting has prompted the Orange County Human Relations Commission to host several meetings in Oakview to reduce tensions. The second in this series of talks is scheduled for today.
But no one believes the meeting alone will solve things.
The difficulty facing the community was highlighted earlier this week during a routine patrol in the heart of Oakview.
Three young men from Los Angeles were standing behind a car with its trunk open. The two officers who regularly patrol the area didn’t recognize them and decided to ask them a few questions.
When Officer Scott E. McKean asked them what they were doing so far from home, one of the men responded, “It’s America, baby.”
The men said they were handing out free political newspapers. Police searched the men’s pockets but didn’t find anything unusual.
After the officers walked away, the three men seemed to collectively shake their heads. They felt like they had been harassed.
“My question is, what are these guys from L.A. doing here?” Officer McKean said later.
“And did you hear that guy asking ‘Why are you sweatin’ us?’ ” responded his partner, Officer Eric Ramsey.
Still, McKean said he has a good relationship with most people he encounters in Oakview and that just a handful cause trouble.
“Most of the [people] in Oakview are basically hard working, trying to support their families and make a better life for themselves,” he said. “It’s just a minority of individuals there [who] create most of the problems.”
McKean is among those officers who feels the Police Department has been unfairly criticized since the May 5 shooting.
At first, police said a Huntington Beach officer saw 18-year-old Antonio Saldivar peering into a car, began chasing him and finally shot him when the teenager pointed what turned out to be a toy rifle. But now investigators believe the officer was chasing another man, lost him briefly and then came across Saldivar holding the toy. The case is being reviewed by the Orange County district attorney and the FBI. Saldivar’s family has also filed a claim against the city.
Lt. Luis Ochoa supervised police officers in Oakview for seven years before taking a watch commander job in January. He said his officers acted aggressively to weed out crime while also trying to build trust in the community.
“We have a lot of faith in our officers to do the right thing,” Ochoa said. “In any area where there is a crime problem, the officer has his own style of policing that particular area. What is essential is that the officer treat those individuals that he encounter politely and with respect.”
Not everyone is so sure.
Martha C. Jimenez, president of the local parent-teacher organization and a volunteer for the code enforcement department, said she is wary of gang violence but also feels the police go too far in hassling residents.
The police “don’t want people to be afraid, they want us to trust them,” Jimenez said. “But like a 6-year-old boy asked in a meeting, ‘Why do the police kill people?’ ”
Olga Flores, 19, lives across the street from where Saldivar was shot.
“There’s a lot of complaining but no one’s doing anything,” said Flores. “They’re afraid of the police. Just because we are Mexicans, they don’t have the right to do that.”
The demographics in Oakview changed over the years from poor whites in the 1960s, then a mix of whites and Latino immigrants in the 1970s. By the 1990s, the area was predominantly Latino, and corner drug sales were rampant, according to police. People from as far away as Los Angeles knew that this was the place to score easy drugs.
When Fran Andrade, 65, first came to work as a liaison between the neighborhood school and community in 1969, the shift from white and Latino was just about to begin. She said the community has endured years of drug and gang activity but today is the safest she’s seen Oakview in years.
“If you could have seen it then and then see it now, it really, really has improved,” said Andrade. “In this community, the police [used to be] the natural enemy.”
Andrade said she made efforts to translate laws from English to Spanish. The residents could not understand why they were being ticketed for violations such as drinking in public, driving without a driver’s license or parking illegally.
“A lot of what they said was harassment was the law,” Andrade said. “These kids have the attitude that ‘They don’t like me because I’m a gang member.’ It’s not harassment if you are breaking the law.”
Andrade and others said a strong police presence, mainly seen through regular foot patrols and a nearby substation, finally brought down crime over the past few years.
“We’ve probably invested more in that area than in other areas of the city,” said Rich Barnard, public information officer for the city of Huntington Beach. “I can’t think of a comparable area with the same mix of services.”