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The LAPD Is on Trial Once Again

John Mack is president of the Los Angeles Urban League.

The tragic and heart-rending story of Devin Brown, who was shot dead by Los Angeles Police Department Officer Steve Garcia last Sunday, has frustrated and outraged African Americans in this city.

This tragedy, coming on the heels of the flashlight beating of Stanley Miller by LAPD Officer John Hatfield last year and the decision by Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley not to file any criminal charges in the case, reopens old wounds and revisits the terrible history of conflict and tension between the LAPD and the African American community.

It reminds us that the institutional culture of the police force has not yet been transformed, and it represents a setback to police Chief William J. Bratton’s efforts to build mutual trust, respect and a partnership between the police department and the African American community.

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Based upon the LAPD’s preliminary investigation, last week’s incident began with a four-minute chase after Devin Brown drove through a red light near Gage and Grand avenues in South L.A. It ended at West 83rd Street and Western Avenue, when he began backing the maroon Toyota Camry toward the squad car.

Even though the police officers immediately got out of their squad car, moved out of the path of Brown’s car and were not in danger of being hit, Garcia fired off 10 rounds, killing the boy.

Now there’s no question that these two boys (Devin Brown had a 14-year-old passenger with him) should have been at home and not on the streets late at night. And, unquestionably, a 13-year-old had no business driving a car anywhere. But that does not give a police officer the right to kill him.

The reality in this city is that too often police officers stereotype black youths as gang members and too often they cross the line in going after those they see as the “bad guy.”

The LAPD has a long-standing institutional culture in which some police officers feel that they have the tacit approval of their leadership, especially at the mid-executive level, to brutalize and even kill African American boys and men. They believe -- and they’ve often been proved right -- that heads will turn the other way.

Some police officers -- not the majority -- simply do not respect or value the lives of African American males. And this behavior will continue until these officers are held accountable for their actions by the LAPD and the criminal justice system.

Violent crime is a serious problem in South Los Angeles, and those who are wreaking havoc by committing violence need to be identified, arrested and punished.

But we have to oppose all violence -- whether it is a police officer killing a 13-year-old African American boy or an African American gang member killing a member of his own community or an African American killing a police officer. All Angelenos must work together to combat violence and reverse this collision course with disaster.

Police officers must not be permitted to misuse a badge, a flashlight or a gun or to operate above the law under the guise of fighting crime and violence.

The police chief and the LAPD can send a strong message that this is a new day for the department by rapidly finishing up the investigation of Hatfield and the other officers who were involved in the flashlight beating of the 37-year-old Miller -- and firing or suspending any who are found to have behaved wrongly.

Bratton says all the right things about improving relations between the police and the African American community. But there is a major disconnect between his vision for the LAPD and that of his officers at the street level in South Los Angeles. He must send the message that there will be consequences for police abuse, brutality or misconduct and that African Americans must be treated with respect.

The Police Commission can also send a message by providing strong policy oversight and ensuring zero tolerance for police abuse and misconduct. This tragic killing and the beating of Miller have seriously undermined the confidence of many African Americans in the police and the criminal justice system.

The LAPD is, again, on trial in the minds of many. And the jury is still out.


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