Beating of Minister Discussed
Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan dispatched a top lieutenant to Los Angeles on Monday for a two-hour meeting with Police Chief William J. Bratton to defuse tensions over the police beating of Minister Tony Muhammad last week, the chief said.
A visibly battered Muhammad told reporters last week he was beaten without provocation, but police said he instigated the use of police force by joining in a mob assault on officers. Bratton said he assured Nation of Islam Minister Don Muhammad of Boston that the department would thoroughly investigate Thursday’s conflict.
“It’s my belief that the Nation of Islam has no interest in seeing this spin out of control and they are desirous of seeing relations improve with the Police Department,” Bratton told The Times on Monday.
Don Muhammad, who has known Bratton for 25 years, declined to discuss specifics of the meeting but said he came away “encouraged and optimistic.”
Don Muhammad said an official statement would be released after a meeting today between Nation of Islam Chief of Staff Leonard Farrakhan and Tony Muhammad.
Bratton did not release any new details of the incident.
“We don’t know who did what and we are keeping an open mind about it, as we always do,” Bratton said.
Bratton said that officers would be punished if they were found to be at fault. The chief said he told Don Muhammad that it would take time for the LAPD’s criminal and administrative investigations to run their course and that Nation of Islam members would be held to account if they were found to have assaulted the officers.
The ACLU on Monday urged Bratton to hand over the investigation to the Police Commission’s inspector general, contending that LAPD actions may have led “to another precarious situation in South Los Angeles.”
“Traditionally, the inspector general has been muted,” Ricardo Garcia, the group’s criminal justice director, told The Times. “There is an apparatus in place with the inspector general that needs to be given teeth to engage in these investigations and follow through.”
Bratton rejected the American Civil Liberties Union appeal, saying that the City Charter and a federal consent decree clearly spell out that the LAPD must investigate itself, with Inspector General Andre Birotte playing only an oversight role.
“The ACLU has a misunderstanding of the role of the inspector general,” Bratton said, adding that the group had tried and convicted his officers before the investigation had taken place.
Birotte said he already was playing a pivotal role in the investigation.
“I spoke to Minister Tony Muhammad while he was in jail. I went down there the minute I heard,” he said. “Our office is already immersed.”
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa underscored Birotte’s comments, saying the inspector general would “play a prominent role” and would “be a part of every phase of the investigation.”
Newly appointed Police Commission President John Mack, a longtime civil rights activist and police watchdog, said, “It is going to take some time, because we have got to protect everyone’s rights.”
Thursday’s incident unfolded at a vigil for Nahum Beaird, 21, of Hyde Park who was killed in a gang-related shooting Wednesday. An agitated crowd said that Beaird moved after paramedics had abandoned resuscitation efforts and covered his body with a sheet. Fire officials said the man, who had a gaping wound to the head, was already dead.
During Thursday’s vigil, police said, two officers asked Nation of Islam members to move their SUVs, which were blocking traffic. Police say they were concerned that the vehicles could be hit in a retaliatory shooting.
The officers were soon surrounded by a mob that included Muhammad, police said. One officer’s breast pocket and name tag were ripped off and a police radio, later recovered, was stolen, police said.
The officers called for backup and stepped away as other officers moved in to arrest Muhammad on suspicion of battery on a police officer. Police said they got into a scuffle with the minister and his two bodyguards, who were arrested on suspicion of obstruction of justice.
Muhammad, his supporters and at least one witness said the minister was attacked by police without provocation when he tried to discuss their failure to control traffic around the 10th Avenue vigil. Danny Bakewell, Los Angeles Sentinel publisher and a spokesman for Muhammad, said the minister was pepper-sprayed, punched and kicked while on the ground.
On Saturday, police released a transcript of a taped verbal exchange between Muhammad and an officer at the scene who at the time was also communicating with a police dispatcher.
The officer addresses Muhammad, saying, “Don’t walk behind me; don’t walk behind me.”
Muhammad replies, “I’m not doing nothing; I’m not going nowhere.”
After the officer tells him to “back up,” Muhammad responds, “Make me,” according to the transcript.
The officer repeats, “Back up,” and Muhammad again responds by shouting, “Make me.”
The transcript ends with the officer calling for more units.
Bratton said he would ask commissioners to direct Birotte to conduct a study of how to speed up officer use-of-force investigations. Lengthy police and prosecutorial reviews of recent high-profile police incidents, including the shooting death of 13-year-old Devin Brown, have angered some city residents.
Police reform advocates have insisted that the Police Commission use the Muhammad incident to reassert its power. Some of them had complained that former Mayor James K. Hahn defanged the commission by appointing an ad-hoc panel to probe the 2004 police beating of car-theft suspect Stanley Miller.
“With a brand new commission, there is an opportunity to demonstrate to the community that it is going to vigorously exercise its oversight responsibility,” said Richard E. Drooyan, a former federal prosecutor who helped examine both the 1991 Rodney G. King beating and the Rampart scandal.
The part-time commission needs to “empower and back the inspector general to make sure that the department’s internal affairs investigation is thorough and its conclusions have credibility with the commission and in the community,” Drooyan said.
Former Police Commission President Rick Caruso said an assertive panel was crucial to the LAPD and the city.
“If the commission does not assert its authority, then it undermines the purpose of the Police Commission,” he said.
Times staff writer Richard Fausset contributed to this report.