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Tensions Aired at 17 ‘Dialogues’

Times Staff Writers

Criticism of police conduct and calls for parents to take greater charge of their children echoed in community meetings across Los Angeles on Saturday as parents, activists and police struggled to find common ground in the fatal shooting of 13-year-old Devin Brown by an LAPD officer.

During the three-hour Day of Dialogue sessions, feelings ranged from anguish and frustration to hope that the incident might move the city beyond recurring cycles of controversy over officers’ use of deadly force and demands for reforms.

The Feb. 6 shooting has resulted in multiple investigations and a change in Los Angeles Police Department policy; it has also sparked debate about the supervision of children.

According to police, Devin was shot after a short police chase at 4 a.m. in South Los Angeles.

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Questions of LAPD prejudice and parental responsibility spilled out Saturday at the 17 forums, which appeared to draw several hundred participants, including Mayor James K. Hahn and Police Chief William J. Bratton.

“Race matters completely,” South Los Angeles resident Marqueece Harris-Dawson told a gathering at Fire Station 57, a few blocks from where Devin was killed. White teens also joyride, he said, but are not “the ones getting shot.”

Felix Rucker, a retired father of four, retorted that blaming officers and tinkering with police procedures isn’t the answer. “Until we correct the parents, it’s not going to change,” he said. “Kids ... will still be shooting each other every day.”

Throughout the morning, in circles of chairs pulled together in fire stations, libraries and storefronts, similar conversations played out among neighbors, between activists and police, even among members of the same family.

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At a San Pedro fire station, 16 residents sat with police officers and firefighters. Across from one another were Pam Foster and her 19-year-old son, Augusto.

Pam Foster said society and government must play a bigger role in steering young people away from trouble.

“Right now, what we need in the area are jobs,” said Foster, a San Pedro resident. “If your mind is idle, you are going to do something bad.”

Her son, a Cerritos College student, said jobs can’t help children who are not old enough to work. Parents should know what their kids are doing at all times, he said.

“I did stupid stuff as a kid, and my mom came after me to tell me not to do it,” he said. “Police do some stupid stuff, but we all do. We’re all human.”

Several attendees in South Los Angeles were more critical of police, saying the circumstances of the Devin Brown case did not justify lethal force.

But that determination is still to be made by city, county and federal authorities.

According to police, Officer Steve Garcia and his partner were on routine patrol before dawn near Gage and Grand avenues when they saw the driver of a maroon Toyota Camry run a red light. The officers followed the car onto the Harbor Freeway and tried to pull the driver over.

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A three-minute chase ended when the driver, having left the freeway, lost control of the Toyota and drove onto a sidewalk. The officers parked their patrol car behind the Toyota. A 14-year-old passenger fled but was later caught. Devin, who was reportedly behind the wheel, allegedly backed into the patrol car, and Garcia fired 10 shots. Officials have not said where Garcia was when he fired.

The shooting led to protests in the black community, which has a long history of tension with the LAPD and gives the department a far lower approval rating than other neighborhoods do.

Democratic Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who represents South Los Angeles, helped organize the Day of Dialogue so residents could vent their concerns. He said he was glad to have an ethnic mix at the meetings.

Reaction to the shooting has been complex, even among blacks, as many question both Garcia’s actions and why an eighth-grade boy was out driving at 4 a.m. in a car police later realized had been reported stolen. Devin’s relatives said he was supposed to be spending the night at a friend’s house.

The sensitivity of assigning blame, especially to a dead child, was underscored by the response Saturday to some of the provocative statements organizers made to stimulate discussion. At a session at the LAPD’s 77th Street station, a moderator asked attendees to react to the idea that “a boy died without being able to live beyond the mistakes he made.”

“Mistakes he made?” asked James Nichols, 40, of Watts. “To me, the police made the mistake.”

Police officers joined the exchange at several locations. In San Pedro, Harbor Division Commanding Officer Patrick Gannon accused the news media of inciting the public in the wake of shootings like Devin Brown’s.

In South Los Angeles, Officer Antonio Diaz said police have athletic and other programs to help young people, but kids often refuse to join because of peer pressure. “They’re called rats,” he said. “You have generations of gangs in these neighborhoods. It’s hard to break that.”

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Hahn, who is trying to shore up black support in his tough reelection battle, joined another session in South Los Angeles. He reminded the group that he grew up in the area and acknowledged that police once had a history of pulling over African Americans for “DWB” -- driving while black.

He said he did not blame Devin’s mother for her son’s death and was eager for investigations to be completed so that corrective actions, if needed, can be implemented.

“We don’t want another mother not to have a 13-year-old come home because he’s lying in the street dead,” Hahn said. The mayor said his participation in the discussion was not a campaign stop but an effort to help people understand a tragedy.

Bratton said the investigation could take six to eight months and would include the construction of a full-size, detailed replica of the corner where the shooting occurred. He said conclusions on where Garcia was when he fired and the path of the bullets should be released in several weeks.

The department is also reevaluating training and field procedures, the chief said. For example, officers are tested six times a year on the accuracy of their shooting, he said, but only once a year on the appropriate use of force.

Saturday’s sessions were concentrated more in central and blue-collar neighborhoods than in, say, the Westside and the West San Fernando Valley. And several were co-sponsored by organizations that serve the needy.

At the 77th Street police station, several of the 25 community members who filed into the courtyard for the session said they had never heard of Devin Brown. Juan Campo, 31, said in Spanish that he was told he should come to the meeting after being cited for a traffic violation. “I got a ticket for driving without a license,” he said. He wouldn’t say who told him to attend.

Inside the large fire engine bay at the station in Venice, the discussion nearly brought Leticia Garcia Greenman to tears.

A family services manager at the neighborhood’s St. Joseph Center, Greenman said people should stop pointing fingers.

“Devin Brown’s death has put us together,” she said.

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Times staff writer Nicholas Shields contributed to this report.


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