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Bratton walks a fine line on race

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton is reaching out to black leaders in an effort to counter criticism that he has written off concerns about racial violence.

In recent weeks, the chief has been bombarded by challenges on the issue after he asserted that racial violence between blacks and Latinos has been overblown by the media and the public.

His campaign met with skepticism last week over coffee and cookies at an invitation-only meeting with black journalists and commentators at the LAPD’s 77th Street station. For more than an hour, Bratton smiled and nodded as some participants directed barbs his way, insisting that blacks were being targeted by Latino gang members.

“I’m looking for some help in how to frame this,” the chief said, uncharacteristically meek. “I’m trying to find some common ground.”

By the end, it appeared Bratton faced challenges reconciling the fears of black residents with the reality of his crime statistics.

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“You say you are not ignorant of . . . our sensitivity to racial gang violence, but the first thing out of your mouth is that [these crimes] are not racially motivated,” Betty Pleasant, a contributing editor at the Wave newspaper, told the chief.

“You need to expand your definition of what’s racially motivated,” she said.

The perception among blacks of widespread race-based violence has been stoked by high-profile cases over the years.

Last year, for example, federal prosecutors charged members of a Latino gang with waging a violent campaign to drive blacks out of the unincorporated Florence-Firestone neighborhood. And, in the Harbor Gateway district of L.A., police launched a crackdown last year on another Latino gang accused of targeting blacks, including 14-year-old Cheryl Green, whose death became a rallying point.

Though such cases have left lasting impressions that are difficult to erase, police say they are not indicative of overall crime statistics.

A Times review of all homicides in Los Angeles since 2007 has found evidence supporting the chief’s main contention: that whatever racial tensions exist in the city, they have not spilled over into homicides.

Six of a total of 103 homicides in the city this year are confirmed to have involved a Latino killing a black. One of those was the slaying of LAPD Officer Randy Simmons during a SWAT call-out Feb. 6. As of Friday, three Latinos are believed to have been killed by blacks in the city. In none of these cases have police found evidence of a racially motivated hate crime.

What some residents construe as hate crimes police have attributed to gang feuds often grounded in turf battles instead of racial animosity.

The racial discord is a test for Bratton, who views race relations as central to his agenda. In downplaying the potential for racial violence without appearing to dismiss black fears, the chief walks a fine line: On the one hand, he risks jeopardizing what he hopes will be his legacy of racial progress. On the other, he risks inflaming racial tensions.

Also at issue for Bratton is the idea upon which he has staked his career: that reducing crime will help bring the races together. Instead, six years into his tenure -- and despite a historic drop in crime -- Bratton finds himself confronted by a potentially bitter racial controversy.

Bratton now concedes that his “just the facts” approach hasn’t worked. Black commentators have accused him of downplaying a rising menace. Reporters have pressed him at every turn. “Why do you keep hammering on this?” he asked at a recent news conference.

Bratton, in an interview with The Times last week, faulted the media for “trying to create this story.” The issue, he said, was a “deflect” -- a straw man people have seized upon to express deep-seated racial anxieties related to economic insecurity, immigration and the city’s changing demographics.

But he said that he needed to adjust his message and act quickly to ease tensions.

The Police Department has not always helped its own case. In a report last month aimed at allaying concerns about black/Latino racial killings, LAPD officials indicated that killings of blacks by Latinos had increased by 14% this year. What the department didn’t make clear was that it was basing that calculation on a very small number of homicides.

Of L.A.'s 103 murders as of Thursday, 30 victims were black. Sixteen of those are believed to have been killed by other blacks, and six by Latinos. Nine cases have no known suspect.

Besides Simmons, the five blacks allegedly killed by Latinos within the LAPD’s jurisdiction this year were Charles Bonner, 46, stabbed Jan. 13 as he tried to protect a woman from a violent Latino man in his homeless encampment; Duwayne Bennett, 44, stabbed March 1 by a fellow bar patron in Marina del Rey; an unidentified man, 49, killed March 26 in Hollywood in what police believe was a gang-related shooting; Jamiel Shaw Jr., 17, a high school football player killed by a Latino gang member in Arlington Heights on March 2; and Craig Cooper, 53, shot Feb. 12 in Jefferson Park.

Cooper stands out as the only confirmed black victim of Latino violence in the LAPD’s South Bureau this year. The South Bureau encompasses South L.A., the area where black and Latino gangs are believed to overlap most extensively.

But police do not believe that racism drove Cooper’s slaying. According to Det. Rick Gordon, Cooper was not affiliated with a gang but was the random victim of a gang war in which a black gang and a Latino gang were allied against their common enemy: another black gang. Such random gang hits are common even when gangs of the same race fight, police say.

Citywide, Latino victims allegedly killed by black suspects this year were Jacinto Martinez, 20, slain Feb. 20, and Jose Martinez, 26, killed Feb. 25. Both were victims of black gang members who were in a dispute with a Latino gang in the young men’s neighborhood. That feud in the Southwest Division has been going on “since the two gangs were invented,” said Det. David Garrido. Another Latino, George Rosas, 29, was killed Feb. 14 by a black acquaintance with whom he had a falling-out, said Det. Kelle Baitx.

Even the LAPD’s Harbor Division, which drew extensive news coverage after a 6-year-old black boy was left comatose after being shot by Latino gang members March 4, has not seen subsequent acts of interracial violence. All five homicides in the Harbor Division so far this year have been Latino-on-Latino.

The L.A. statistics mirror broader patterns throughout the county. The Times has analyzed the circumstances of 562 Latino and black homicides from 2007 in which the race of the suspects was known, including all LAPD and sheriff’s cases, plus those of smaller police agencies such as Long Beach and Inglewood. The analysis found that nearly 90% of both black and Latino homicide victims had been killed by suspects of their own race -- a rate almost identical to that of the city of Los Angeles.

Countywide, killings between the races, like the LAPD cases this year, involved a mix of circumstances. These included a jail fight, gang attacks, arguments, stray bullets and instances of mistaken identity.

Some black critics of Bratton have said he has been too quick to draw conclusions and high-handed in his blanket denial of racial tensions.

“I remain firmly convinced” of the trend toward racially motivated violence, Pleasant wrote in a recent column of the Wave. In an earlier column, she accused the chief of “urinating on our feet and telling us it’s raining.”

Others, while less pointed, say they are troubled by the chief’s response.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, said the issue strikes a nerve in blacks because “of the whole history of racial violence in America, going way back in time, decades and decades: the lynchings, the beatings, the killings, the shootings . . . the firebombings. The communal memory is that law enforcement did nothing. They stood by.”

For some police and for the family members of victims of same-race crime, the intense focus on interracial crime hits a nerve of a different sort. They say that for years, the media and wider public have ignored the mass of black-on-black and brown-on-brown killings and given disproportionate attention to the small number of cross-racial killings.

For example, in the LAPD’s 77th Street Division, 17-year-old Darione Page was slain earlier this year in a case that drew virtually no news coverage -- a sharp contrast to the killing of Shaw, the high school football player.

Like Shaw, Page was a random target, not a gang member. Page, however, was killed by a black person, not by Latino, Det. Carlos Velasquez said.

Still, Pleasant, the Wave columnist, told the chief at his meeting with the journalists that he needed to be less dogmatic in his statements. Bratton said he has learned the lesson.

“I need to be much more sensitive to the reality of their world versus the reality of the police investigative world,” he said.

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jill.leovy@latimes.com

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doug.smith@latimes.com

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joel.rubin@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.


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