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Case history of a ‘rumble’ — who’s to blame?

”... police confiscated tire irons, car jacks, knives and razors ... 26 teen-aged boys were arrested ... 12 were treated for cuts and bruises ...”

This was a “rumble,” typical of juvenile gang fighting, the specter of which haunts many rapidly growing areas of Los Angeles County.

This senseless violence, often with racial overtones, sometimes has developed into major riots.

Police officers move fast when a “rumble” develops.

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Some say they move too fast, that fear of gang and race warfare, justified though it may be, has developed an attitude by police unfair to minority groups.

This is the case history of a “rumble,” how it began, how it developed, how it has resulted in community controversy.

For it, all sides agree, could come important answers.

It started with an anonymous telephone call warning about imminent juvenile gang warfare.

And because of it Pico Rivera today is in the throes of controversy involving charges of police brutality, racial prejudice, lack of parental responsibility, disrespect for constituted authority and even communism.

On Friday, Sept. 21, an unidentified caller told Principal Jack Jines of Pioneer High School, Whittier, that a “rumble” between two gangs, one Mexican-American and the other Anglo, would take place on Monday.

Jines notified the Norwalk sheriff’s substation.

By Monday morning everyone seemed to know about the impending rumble and after school many of the students were “not responsive” to orders that they go home. Instead, they milled about, waiting ...

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Head Toward Bridge

Then some 125 students headed toward a footbridge that crosses the San Gabriel River at Slauson Ave. Jines says this is not unusual; it’s the way home for many of the students who live in Pico Rivera.

Sheriff’s Lt. Alberto Natividad appeared and ordered the juveniles to disperse. They did, but soon reassembled about 50 yards away. The lieutenant asked for reinforcements.

Deps. Russ Lyle and Glenn Stone answered the call and together they ordered the group to disperse. Two boys did not obey, officers say, and were arrested.

The officers also say two mothers tried to interfere and when one was arrested the crowd protested. They say the mothers used abusive language and that one slapped a deputy as she tried to pull her son, who was under arrest, out of a patrol car.

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At this time “the attitude of the group became threatening,” a sheriff’s report readers, and a 999 call was sent out on the police radio.

A 999 call means officers are in trouble and need help. Many juveniles and police critics call 999 the “panic button.”

The call brought 52 deputies in 27 patrol cars. Thirty-seven teen-agers and one mother were taken to Norwalk sheriff’s substation on charges of inciting a riot and refusal to disperse.

Several students claim they were roughed up by deputies and that a Pico Rivera city official insulted their racial origin.

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There are more important cases in bulging court dockets, many defendants awaiting trail on more serious charges.

  • Yet Sheriff Pitchess, Undersheriff James Downey and their top aides have gone over this case with special concern.
  • The Pico Rivera City Council is conducting an investigation.
  • The County Commission on Human Relations is investigation and already has sent a preliminary report to Pitchess.

Why this high-powered attention?

Pico Rivera, bordered on the east and west by the San Gabriel River and the Rio Hondo, and on the north and south by Whittier Narrows Dan and Telegraph Rd., not long ago was a rural area of orange groves and small farms.

It has become urban with a suddenness typical of Southern California’s growth.

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Pico Rivera suffers the headaches of all mushrooming communities: rapid industrialization, a shifting population where people were used to have the same neighbors for years, and large unified school districts which ended the the “little red brick school house” concept of education.

Mutual Respect Lacking

Influential and highly vocal persons in Pico Rivera feel relations between the Sheriff’s Department and citizens, especially teen-agers, have deteriorated, that mutual respect is lacking.

In a report to Sheriff Pitchess, Capt. J.N. Denis of Norwalk wrote:

“Five members of the Pico Rivera Council came to the Norwalk station and talked with (officers) regarding the incident. Four ... were highly pleased with the manner in which this incident was handled. However, one councilman, Frank Terrazas, expressed the opinion that officers had arrested a large percentage of Mexican-Americans. It was pointed out to Councilman Terrazas that the majority of the juveniles pesent were Mexican-Americans.

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“Investigation ... indicated that this was not an anticipated fight between Mexican-Americans and Anglos, but a fight between two groups of juveniles.”

Those arrested, however, claim they were taken into custody as a group of “Anglos” jeered them from across the street. The Anglos were not bothered by the officers, they claim.

The Council of Mexican-American Affairs and the American GI Forum, Pico Rivera chapter, were asked to look into the matter. Representatives of both, along with Councileman Terrazas met with a citizens committee after interviewing officers and many of the juveniles involved.

The committee decided that a formal protest should be made before the Pico Rivera City Council. An overflow crowd attended the meeting on Oct. 1.

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Dionicio Morales, executive director of the Council of Mexican-American Affairs of Los Angeles, spoke first.

Morales wanted to know why “no preventive measures were undertaken” even through school officials and the Sheriff’s Department knew about the rumble “60 hours” before it was supposed to occur. He said “no evidence of either a fight or an impending fight or any other disturbance was ever presented” and “no weapons were found at the scene.” And, Morales, asked, “Why did 52 fully armed deputies have to use force against 100 unarmed students?”

Frank Macias, present of the Pico Rivera GI Forum, spoke next.

“We feel,” he said, “that the situation was not only aggravated by the action of the police, but was probably ignited and started by them. (This comment drew heavy applause) ... A number of students claimed that a member of the City Council was present ... and indulged in unseemly and biased remarks about the students and their origins ... When the police arrived, there was no disorder. Students were necessarily in the areas, leaving school.”

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It was the council’s turn.

Councileman Terrazas said he would have no comment until his own investigation was finished. Mayor Lloyd Manning tried to deny some of the charges made by Macias and Morales and was jeered down by the crowd. Councilwoman Ruth Benell said much of the trouble stemmed from “lack of parental direction.” Councilman John William Davis moved that the council ask Sheriff Pitchess to investigate. The motion passed unanimously.

To find out what Mayor Manning wanted to say at the meeting, The Times called him later. “I was born and raised in Pico Rivera,” the mayor said. “There has never been any racial trouble here and there’s no reason why there should be ... There are Communists involved in this thing ... they’re trying to stir racial trouble here ...”

(In his press conference Oct. 11, 1961, following Alhambra youth riots, Mayor Yorty said lack of respect for police authority could be traced to several things ... including “propaganda by subversive groups to turn the people against law enforcement.”)

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To Sheriff Pitchess, some of the charges made by the Council of Mexican Affairs and the GI Forum “don’t make sense.”

“I’m of Greek extraction myself,” Pitchess said. “I will not tolerate racial discrimination in my organization and my men know it.”

“The charge of police brutality ... has been something of a common cry in recent years,” Pitchess told a committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on Sept. 14. “It’s a charge easily brought, but difficult to disprove. The charge ... makes front-page headlines. The fact that it is not substantiated rarely rates more than an inch of copy...”

As for “racial” riots, the last one publicly called that here occurred Memorial Day, 1961, at Griffith Park. Some 200 Negroes participated. Several officers were injured.

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In an interview with Donald McDonald, dean of the College of Journalism at Marquette University, Chief Parker said:

”... I was criticized for calling it a racial disturbance. But I had to do it. We had had about six of those incidents that week. I publicly labeled it for what it was because I wanted to call it to the attention of the people involved and to let them know this kind of thing was hurting them and had better stop. We have had few since. I believe frankness in these matters is healthy. I think it is a mistake to ignore the facts; that only perpetuates a bad situation.”

Back to the Pico Rivera situation.

The Sheriff’s Department thinks the citizens committee and the two Mexican-American organizations are not aware of many underlying factors.

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“They point out that no weapons were found,” says Sgt. Bill Alley. “Perhaps they don’t realize that there are cases in which weapons are carried in an ‘arsenal car’ which leaves the scene immediately if officers are in the area before the fight begins.

More Officers Hurt

“I would like to point out, too, that more officers get hurt while involved in cases with juveniles than in any other kind.”

Sheriff’s Inspector R.T. Parsonson points out just one week after the Pico Rivera incident juvenile officers arrested nine boys there following a fight in which a boy was picked up and thrown bodily over a wall. The boy had been beaten with an iron bar, Parsonson said.

“Yet the injured boy did not cooperate with juveniles officers,” Parsonson said. “It seems to me this is symptomatic of a situation in which juveniles know that some parents are not on the side of law enforcement officers.”

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Sheriff Pitchess is on record for “tough” handling of what he calls “riotous conspiracy.”

After a near-riot at Zuma Beach on June 5, 1961, in which about 15,000 youths were involved, Pitchess warned “this flaunting of authority can become contagious.”

Time for Showdown

“We must deal any further situations of this type a death blow now!” he said. “The time is here for us to commit ourselves overtly as being for government by law and order, and we must express total and complete intolerance against lawless actions by groups of individuals. Deliberate disregard for the law has moved beyond the point where blame could be placed solely on adults or juveniles, minority or majority groups.”

On Oct. 7, 1961, about 200 officers were needed to quell three post-football game street riots in Alhambra which involved about 1,000 teenagers and young adults.

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Seventy youths were taken to Alhambra police station on charges of inciting a riot. High school students later appeared before the Alhambra City Council to protest. Susan Dyer, Alhambra High student, in a letter to The Times, said the majority of students had nothing to do with the uprising and were merely in the vicinity when it occurred. The letter was signed by 150 students.

But Alhambra police officer John Seney, who was in the middle of the riots, described them like this: “They packed in tight around us ... they pulled our hands off a youth we had arrested ... These were’t a bunch of joy-riding juveniles ... They were a violent mob.”

In a letter to Pico Rivera newspapers, Louis R. Dias, former mayor, takes the side of the Sheriff’s Department, saying:

” ... I have conducted an investigation ... which clearly shows that the Sheriff’s Department has not abused its authority in either of the charges of ‘discrimination’ or ‘police brutality’ ...”

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Morales, Mexican-American Council director, says community leaders and the Sheriff’s Department do not take into consideration the “great social change affecting Pico Rivera.”

“The city’s population remains constant at about 50,000,” he says, “but the Mexican-American population here is increasing. It’s now about 30% of the total. Very little is being done to prevent friction due to differences in cultural backgrounds.”

Important Aspect

John A. Buggs, executive secretary of the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations, who also is conducting an investigation, says one of the most important aspects is to determine whether there are “positive lines of communications” between the Sheriff’s Department and the Mexican-Americans of Pico Rivera.

“Frankly, I think the communication is lacking,” Buggs told The Times. “It seems to me that the police and the Sheriff’s Department do not identify themselves enough with the Negro and Mexican-American people who mold the opinion of their communities ... The hand of friendship must be extended more effectively by police enforcement officers to the minorities ...”

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The Sheriff’s Department answer is in Sheriff Pitchess’ manual on “Police Community Relations,” which says in part:

“Whenever a sizable group of any sort is active in a community, it should be the policy of the police to establish liaison. This is certainly of great important if a community has sections composed primarily of one race or nationality. Many times it is wise to search out an officer or officers with a background similar to the groups, and have them spend time working with them.”

Thus Pico Rivera provides a case history of a problem shared by many communities in the throes of upheaval, one of confusion, misunderstanding and distrust that spawns fear.

Police officials feel complaints against them amount to “coddling” of youngsters, making police work more difficult. Their critics feel just as strongly that officers are more concerned about “prosecution” than “protection” of citizens.

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The juveniles, “growing up” in an atmosphere strange even to their elders, feel more than ever that adults “don’t understand us.”

And that may be the answer to everything ... mutual understanding.


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