Some Los Angeles residents say police harassment spawned outrage over shooting

By Thomas Watkins, AP
Thursday, September 9, 2010

LA residents: Police harassment spawned outrage

LOS ANGELES — A city all too familiar with civil unrest was caught by surprise with the level of outrage over the fatal police shooting of an illegal immigrant from Guatemala who was menacing officers with a knife.

The officers were also Hispanic, and witnesses backed up their claims that Manuel Jaminez threatened them.

And yet, protesters hurled eggs, bottles and rocks at a police station over the past several days, jeered the police chief when he tried to explain in front of a raucous community meeting and pushed long-simmering tensions to the forefront.

For many in the gritty Westlake neighborhood, the shooting was the last straw. Amid the poverty and chronic joblessness here, some residents say, officers mistreated them and were overly harsh in their enforcement of city ordinances.

“They are messing with people all the time,” said Juan Lorenzo, a day laborer who knew Jaminez.

Lorenzo claimed that Officer Frank Hernandez, who the mayor hailed as a hero for shooting Jaminez, was disliked by many in the community because he would often ticket people for selling food on the street and would sometimes throw the food in the trash.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether residents complained about police behavior to the LAPD.

Beyond complaints from several residents on Thursday about the police conduct, there were no easy answers to explain why the community reacted with such anger over the shooting.

The neighborhood just west of downtown is home to immigrants from Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America, where police corruption and violence leaves residents in fear and mistrustful of authority.

In Guatemala, for example, over 200,000 people died — many at the hands of soldiers or paramilitary patrols — in a civil war. In the face of police inaction and corruption, some towns in Guatemala have also become accustomed to taking justice into their own hands.

Mob attacks in which suspected criminals are beaten, sometimes to death, occur with some regularity in rural areas.

In Westlake, the police cracked down on gang activity, and reclaimed MacArthur Park that was once a no-go zone to all but gang members and drug dealers. Now, day laborers wait for construction jobs that sometimes don’t come for days on end.

On the corner where Jaminez was killed, outside the parking lot next to a 99-cent store, a newspaper box was turned into a memorial. A heart-shaped bouquet was tied to the box and a photo of Jaminez was taped alongside.

Lorenzo, also from Guatemala, leaned against a metal railing on the corner and said he did not believe the police account.

Lorenzo said officers had planted a knife near Jaminez’s body — a common refrain Thursday in Westlake. He had no proof, but he said the folding weapon looked more like the kind of tactical blade a police officer would carry.

Chief Charlie Beck on Wednesday said a witness — a neighborhood resident who was not named — told three bicycle officers, including Hernandez, that a man with blood on his hands tried to stab her and a pregnant woman next to her.

As the woman ran away, she heard the officers telling the suspect to drop the knife, then she heard three or four shots, turned around and saw Jaminez on the sidewalk, Beck said. Police said Jaminez raised the knife above his head and lunged at Hernandez.

The 13-year veteran of the department shot Jaminez twice in the head, police said.

The crowd of 300 people exploded when they heard Beck recount the witness’s account. Someone called out that the story sounded like it was made up in Hollywood.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Thursday defended Hernandez’s actions, saying he was a hero and it was “outrageous” that angry residents called Beck a “murderer” at the community meeting.

Beck and other officials say outside radical groups, including the Revolutionary Communist Party, are provoking the protests.

Mike Prysner, an organizer with activist group the Answer Coalition, said the anger is endemic to the community.

“It’s a common tactic by the police to try to blame community outrage on outside agitators,” Prysner said. “In reality the outside agitators were the police who came into the community and attacked peaceful vigils.”

Still, Prysner acknowledged that activists do play a role in helping residents express their frustrations.

Members of a different activist group on Thursday produced for the media a woman who said she witnessed the shooting and who presented a version of events at odds with what other witnesses told police.

The woman, who only gave her first name Ana, said she was out shopping on Sunday and, from her vantage point on the sidewalk across the street, saw Jaminez get shot.

Contrary to accounts from six other witnesses, she said, Jaminez was not holding a knife. “The police said ‘drop the weapon,’ and the man looked at them like he’d been drinking,” she said in Spanish. “But he was holding nothing, absolutely nothing.”

Police Capt. Kris Pitcher, who is overseeing the shooting investigation, said Ana had been identified at the scene but detectives had not yet interviewed her.

Hernandez, who is on administrative leave after the shooting, was involved in earlier shootings, Pitcher said. He did not have details on any of the shootings.

The Los Angeles Times first reported that he shot a female robbery suspect in 1999 when the woman allegedly pointed a handgun at Hernandez and his partner and refused orders to drop the weapon. Her injury was not life-threatening.

In 2008, the Times reported, Hernandez shot an 18-year-old assault suspect who tried to flee, then pointed a gun at Hernandez and another officer. Hernandez shot the man once, wounding him.

Neighbors and friends initially said Jaminez’s last name was spelled Jamines but on Thursday the coroner’s office said he went by the names Manuel Ramirez and Manuel Jaminez.

Tomas Gomez, the brother-in-law of Jaminez, said his relative came from a tiny hamlet in the rugged mountainous region of western Guatemala, the province of Solola, where he was married and had three young sons, the oldest of whom is eight.

Gomez said life was a struggle for Jaminez and his family, whose native language is Quiche, one of about 20 Mayan dialects spoken in Guatemala. He only spoke a little Spanish and no English.

“They didn’t have enough to eat,” Gomez said.

Jaminez decided to seek work in the U.S. a little more than five years ago. Here, he worked as a day laborer, mainly doing construction odd jobs, which he obtained at the local Home Depot. He rented a room in an apartment near the Home Depot.

At times, he felt trapped and grew sad at being so far from his family, Gomez said. “He didn’t have the money to go back, he wasn’t getting a lot of work here,” he said. “There were weeks when he wouldn’t get any work.”

Gomez said Jaminez was not aggressive or violent. He had never seen him with a knife. He said he believes the police are inventing the story about the knife to justify killing him.

“That’s a falsehood by the police,” he said.

Associated Press Writer Christina Hoag in Los Angeles and Juan Carlos Llorca in Guatemala contributed to this report.

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