Friday, August 22, 2014

Despite Similar Shooting, Los Angeles’s ‘Bank of Trust’ Tempers Reaction
Demonstration in Los Angeles against the police shooting of Ezell Ford on
Aug. 11, 2014.
New York Times
AUG. 22, 2014

LOS ANGELES — When Los Angeles police officers shot and killed Ezell Ford, an unarmed 25-year-old black man last week, it took less than 24 hours for Lita Herron to get a phone call from a ranking officer at a nearby station.

“They wanted to check in and gauge our rage,” said Ms. Herron, a grandmother and organizer who has worked to prevent gang violence on the streets of South Los Angeles for years. “They wanted to ask us to quell rumors and hear what we need. We’ve all been through this before — even when we know things are wrong, we aren’t looking for things to explode.”

In Ferguson, Mo., however, angry protests stretched on for nearly two weeks after the police killing of Michael Brown in circumstances that were strikingly similar: an unarmed young black man shot by the police, who some witnesses say was not putting up a struggle.

The killings occurred two days apart. The protests in Missouri were driven initially, in large part, by the police’s refusal to release the name of the officer involved or details of the Aug. 9 shooting. Here, the police are still holding back the autopsy report and the names of the officers involved, citing security concerns.

Yet the reaction in Los Angeles, where clashes between the police and residents have a long history, has so far been much calmer.

While there have been several protests since the Aug. 11 shooting of Mr. Ford, who was mentally ill, including an impromptu march that blocked traffic on city streets, the police have maintained a relatively low profile, relying primarily on a handful of bicycle-riding officers in polo shirts rather than the rifle-carrying officers in riot gear pictured in Ferguson. This week, Chief Charlie Beck and other top-ranking officials showed up for a community meeting at a local church, telling the angry crowd of several hundred that there were still more questions than answers about the shooting.

In the more than two decades since riots erupted after white police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney G. King, a black construction worker, relations between law enforcement and their communities here have changed drastically. In many South Los Angeles police precincts, officers routinely check in with organizers like Ms. Herron. Local church leaders have officers’ phone numbers committed to memory. When protests are planned, seasoned organizers let the police know — even when the police are the target of their outrage.

“We have an infrastructure here where there are outlets for people to vent frustration and move into action,” said Marqueece Harris-Dawson, the president of Community Coalition, which runs several programs for residents in South Los Angeles. “This has taken more than 20 years to build and sustain — there’s no question it would not have been this way a generation or two ago.”

Still, on the streets of South Los Angeles, a predominantly black and Latino neighborhood, a sense of distrust of the police remains. Mr. Harris-Dawson, who is black, often points out that he has had a gun pointed at him by an L.A.P.D. officer four times and has never carried a weapon. Black and Latino teenage boys rattle off instances where they were pulled over and questioned for what they say was no reason. Still, many local leaders are willing to give the department some leeway to continue the investigation into the Ford shooting before coming to a clear conclusion.

“The chief also does not make it the job of the department to exonerate the officer,” Mr. Harris-Dawson said. “They do take a minute to have some remorse for the fact that someone is dead.”

When Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a longtime civil rights leader here and a frequent critic of the department, demanded a meeting with top police officials last week, they quickly arranged to discuss the case. They listened to Mr. Hutchinson’s demands for a “fast track” investigation and a quick release of the officers’ names and the autopsy results. Earl Paysinger, an assistant police chief, declined to predict when such information would be available, saying detectives were still canvassing the area looking for witnesses.

Chief Paysinger said in an interview on Friday that the department was “well aware we can’t let it go on indefinitely.”

“We’ve seen this film before — this is ‘Groundhog Day’ for us,” Chief Paysinger said. “What the people are demanding is not unreasonable. We know that whatever we say first will become gospel, and we’d rather deal with some discontent now than putting out information we have to correct later.”

Mr. Paysinger, who has been with the department for nearly 40 years and oversees its day-to-day operations, said that the department had for years now tried to rely on what it called the “bank of trust” among community members. Just more than a year ago, the department was under a consent decree imposed by the Justice Department, after dozens of officers were accused of tampering with evidence and physically abusing and framing suspects.

“We’ve learned that community outreach can’t wait for the day when you’re in trouble and need help,” Chief Paysinger said. Now, he said, the network of community support is so wide, it is a matter of course for officers to call local leaders routinely. And the efforts have expanded along with the importance of social media: Each police station now assigns personnel to monitor websites, Facebook and Twitter almost round-the-clock, watching for everything from signs of gang activity to how people are reacting to political events.

In some sense, Mr. Ford’s death is remarkable for the publicity it has received here — several longtime activists said it would be easy to imagine the shooting getting little attention were it not for the outrage in Missouri.

Officers here have shot and killed 12 people so far this year, compared with 14 such deaths all of last year. In several protests after the Ford shooting, one organization held up a large banner listing the names of more than 300 people who have died during conflicts with law enforcement here in the last seven years.

“This happened just as it became clear that Ferguson was a billboard of what we did not want to do,” said Curren Price, a city councilman who represents South Los Angeles and organized the community meeting this week, which was attended by the police chief, as well as the head of the police oversight board. “We all knew this is another critical juncture for us.”

“There are a lot of deep wounds — L.A.P.D. was a pretty notorious organization not that long ago,” Mr. Price said. “Unfortunately, anytime something like this happens, it brings all that back to the surface. There’s still a long way to go before we can say things are good.”

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