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Latest shooting stirs anger in Inglewood

Times Staff Writers

When Jacqueline Seabrooks took over as Inglewood’s police chief last year, city leaders and residents voiced high hopes that the veteran law enforcement outsider could restore trust in an institution crucial to a town struggling with waves of scandal and years of social change.

But this week the department and City Hall are once again under intense criticism from residents and civil rights activists after a fatal shooting Monday involving an officer already under investigation in the killing of a man two months ago.

Whether Officer Brian Ragan, one of two patrolmen under scrutiny for the May shooting of an unarmed man, acted properly in the latest confrontation remains to be seen.

But the incident, on the heels of other recent shootings, has given new energy to critics who question the city’s leadership and whether Seabrooks is up to delivering needed reforms.

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On Tuesday, many wanted to know why Ragan was returned to the streets so quickly, when an investigation of his actions and a $25-million lawsuit are still pending. More than 200 people showed up at the City Council meeting to vent their anger.

Some demanded Seabrooks’ resignation. Others called for creation of a new, independent commission to investigate the Police Department, as well as deeper inquiries into Monday’s fatal shooting of postal worker Kevin Wicks, 38, at his North Hillcrest Boulevard apartment.

“I want you, the community, to know that we are conducting a series of layered investigations,” Seabrooks told the City Hall audience. But Seabrooks did not address concerns over why Ragan was returned to duty last month and asked that the public withhold judgment until all the facts are in on the latest shooting.

Police said Ragan and three other officers responded to a report of a family disturbance at the building. When officers knocked on Wicks’ door, he answered it holding a handgun that he suddenly raised at the officers, according to police accounts. A gun registered to Wicks was recovered at the scene, officials said.

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Neighbors and an investigator hired by the dead man’s family questioned police accounts, saying Wicks was a quiet tenant who rarely had visitors and that officers hadn’t clearly identified themselves.

At Tuesday evening’s council meeting, community activists zeroed in on Seabrooks, 46, who was on vacation when the Wicks shooting occurred and had not appeared in public until she showed up at City Hall.

Seabrooks “spit in the face of every resident of Inglewood” by not speaking up sooner, said Najee Ali of Project Islamic H.O.P.E.

Willis Edwards, a board member of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, earlier criticized Seabrooks for not facing the public immediately after Monday’s shooting and other incidents. After the May shooting, Seabrooks chided a Times reporter for calling her at home outside of business hours.

“We need to have a chief that will take calls 24 hours a day,” Edwards said. Councilman Daniel Tabor who was traveling and not at Tuesday’s council meeting, defended her leadership and said the personal attacks were unfair.

“We’ve got the right chief at the right time,” he said in a telephone interview from Georgia.

The controversy adds to the turmoil that has plagued the community of nearly 130,000 for decades. In the 1970s, the city went through wrenching change, with court-ordered cross-town busing and white flight.

Sharp demographic and ethnic shifts -- from white to black, then black to Latino -- followed in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

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In recent years, the city has seen sharp drops in crime, as well as growth as a commercial hub, but political and law enforcement scandals have hurt efforts to revive an image of stability and can-do leadership.

In June, Mayor Roosevelt Dorn was charged with conflict of interest and misappropriation of $500,000 in public funds.

Last year, The Times reported an ongoing federal probe of at least six current or former Inglewood officers accused of receiving sexual services at local massage parlors.

In December 2006, a visiting Florida woman accused an Inglewood officer of following her to her motel room and sexually attacking her. Her lawsuit against the city is still pending.

In 2002, Inglewood police arrested and handcuffed 16-year-old Donovan Jackson for failing to comply with orders. After the teenager was handcuffed, one of the officers picked him up and slammed him against a patrol car. The scene was captured on video, and national media compared the incident with the 1991 Rodney King beating by Los Angeles police. The incident triggered years of litigation and criminal prosecutions, including a $2.4-million jury award to two white officers involved in the incident who claimed they were unfairly punished.

The May shooting of 19-year-old Michael Byoune was the first law enforcement crisis on Seabrooks’ watch.

Coming from a captain’s job in the Santa Monica Police Department, she was named Inglewood’s top cop last September, the first black female police chief in California. A product of racially mixed South Los Angeles, Seabrooks talked of her own disturbing treatment as a teenager at the hands of police officers and vowed to help the 200-officer agency regain a sense of mission and organizational confidence.

Her handling of the fatal Byoune incident, in which two other young men were injured, was carefully measured. She called it a tragedy, but stopped short of labeling the officers’ actions a mistake.

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Ragan, a 5 1/2 -year veteran of the department, and Officer Roman Fernandez, with the department less than a year, were responding to a call of shots fired. The officers suspected Byoune’s group of being involved in the gunfire and opened fire when the car the men were in moved toward officers, police said. There was no evidence linking the men to the earlier gunfire, police later said.

After being placed on paid leave, Ragan and Fernandez were back on duty last month as the inquiry into their actions continued, officials said. Byoune’s family last month announced a $25-million wrongful death lawsuit against the city.

Why Seabrooks risked the potential second-guessing and liability of placing Ragan back on the front lines so soon after the previous shooting was one of the many questions raised Tuesday.

Department officials said a psychologist had cleared Ragan to return to duty, and the department concurred.

Tabor, the councilman, said returning Ragan to patrol appeared routine and partly to protect the employee’s rights.

But he added, “Obviously now we need to have a broader, more public conversation about that decision and about a number of issues relative to the current fear in the community and the appearance of fear of officers on the street.”

Larger questions were being posed about Seabrooks’ approach to the job.

Donald Nicholson, vice-chairman of the city’s police oversight commission, said there had been a lack of communication between the new chief and the panel. Seabrooks had not sought commission advice, he said. But the chief had battled with the panel over complaints against officers, he said, specifically whether members should see the reports and whether officers’ names should be included.

Nicholson complained that the watchdog panel has had no real power. “The commission needs to be given some teeth.”

In that vein, Earl Ofari Hutchinson, chairman of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, met with Mayor Dorn on Tuesday to call for a new commission to overhaul the Inglewood Police Department’s policies and practices on the use of deadly force.

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ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

rich.connell@latimes.com

Times staff writer Joanna Lin and researcher Robin Mayper contributed to this report.


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