Knife at a Gunfight

Writing

A community confronts its police chief.

This:

manuel jamines knife jpg

is the knife police officials say was in Manuel Jamines’ hands when Officer Frank Hernandez shot and killed him with a gun like this:

beretta 92 fs

a nine-millimeter Beretta, the gun issued to all police officers when they are first sworn into the force. 

Last week, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck called a town hall meeting in the MacArthur Park neighborhood, at a local middle school, to discuss both the circumstances around Mr. Jamines’ death and the department’s official response. For the occasion, L.A.P.D.’s Media Relations Department enlarged a photograph of the knife, mounted it, and displayed the picture at the front of the room, near the podium. The message, it seemed, centered on the specific: What happened to Mr. Jamines happened only because he was carrying a knife, reportedly threatening people with this knife, and when ordered by police officers in both Spanish and English to drop the knife, he refused. The shooting, officials maintained, did not have anything to do with a larger trend in law enforcement. It did not, L.A. Police Commissioner Rob Saltzman told the crowd, suggest that the L.A.P.D. is returning to its old ways when it was not closely monitored by the Commission.

If there were people in the audience who agreed with this perspective, they didn’t say so. Those who came to the microphone were distinctly not about the specifics. In fact, only some of them spoke in any detail about Mr. Jamines. Instead, they spoke about a police culture that to them remains, despite reforms, steeped in corruption, recklessness, and racism. The speakers were victims of the MacArthur Park Melee in 2007. They were victims of the Rampart Scandal in 1997. They were falsely charged, they were wrongly arrested, they have filed complaints that are not reviewed fast enough or fairly. Their cousin was shot by police officers; if not their cousin, then their neighbor, their student.

IT’S worth noting that the people who spoke at the town hall meeting are not alone in thinking that this shooting is representative of a larger, more fundamental problem. Some of the other armchair analysts, though, cite an entirely different core crisis and thus an entirely different set of suggestions, mainly having to do with increased border security and mass deportation. The police report taken at the scene and later summarized in a news release dated September 7th has just the details to fuel the hysteria: An immigrant roaming the streets with a weapon, threatening women and children, defying law enforcement, and now with the cost of an investigation into the officer’s tactics, draining tax dollars. This much has been said on a dozen English-speaking news sites, posted by people with aliases like “SicknTired” and “FED UP in Los Angeles.” It seems their anxiety is not only about the violence, but also about the official response to the violence, the nature of the town hall meeting itself. About this, one man — alias “james andrews” — commented on latimes.com: “When you have to hold a meeting in two or more languages in a town hall you know what’s wrong.”

The meeting was actually supposed to be conducted in just one language — Spanish. To open the meeting,  Councilman Ed Reyes told the audience, “We’re going to try something different this evening. We’re going to conduct this meeting in Spanish.” He went on that he still wanted English-speakers to participate. “Raise your hands,” the Councilman said. “We have headsets for you.”

For whatever reason, the headsets didn’t end up working out. City Staff collected them midway through the meeting and in their stead, Francisco Ortega, a human relations specialist with the Community Development Department, mainly (but not totally) translated the Spanish at the microphone into English. So the weight of the City Councilman’s announcement remained. Whatever it signifies seems to be exactly what brews beneath the panicked comments of james andrews and FED UP in Los Angeles: The very real fear that they will one day go to a town hall meeting and not understand a single thing that is happening around them; that they will one day be the ones who have to adjust.

As it happens, there was one woman at the meeting on Wednesday who seemed on some level to represent the constituency of the Sickntireds in the city. She was overheard saying that all Mexicans should go back to their own country. Then she was promptly surrounded by a crowd that told her to, “Shoo! Shoo!” And she did. She left the town hall meeting.

THOSE that remained were equally from MacArthur Park and from some place else, they were equally speaking for themselves and for larger organizations they represented: The Congress for Race and Equality was there along the Coordinated Guatemalan Organizations of L.A., the Coalition for Community Control Over the Police, the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, among others. There was equally the loud crowd at the back and the more reserved attendees in their chairs, some there to inquire about the methods Officer Hernandez used with Mr. Jamines and others there for another agenda entirely that might best be summarized by a sign one man at the back held: STOP COPS FROM KILLING THE COMMUNITY!

There were others, too, who were there simply because they knew Mr. Jamines (“He was very nice, but very drunk,” one neighbor said) or because they wanted to mobilize more people for a march on Saturday. Or, in the case of one man, Reynaldo, who is originally from the Philippines, because he wanted to find a lawyer. “I was pushed,” he said. “In the protests, I was pushed. I need money.” Reasons for this were documented in the bag of files he carried with him, files of letters and lab reports that indicated both an upcoming surgery and ongoing lawsuit with a janitorial franchise company. (For his part, he searched hard: First at the Day Labor Center at Home Depot, then again at the meeting. But he was ultimately unsuccessful. At the meeting’s end, he told the woman who had earlier come to the microphone to say she was a victim of the Melee in 2007, “There is no lawyer, there is no class action.”)

Only one man arrived at the microphone to speak personally of Mr. Jamines. This man was wrapped in a Guatemalan flag and introduced himself in Ki’che. Mr. Jamines was his cousin, he said. (Mr. Jamines was also a husband and father of three.) After the meeting was over, one police lieutenant added that Mr. Jamines was a drunk and a nuisance, who on at least one other occasion had threatened security guards. Lt. Loscarelli went on, “It’s my understanding that the blood was not the suspect’s. We don’t know whose blood it was — we’re still trying to figure out, did this guy stab someone first? We don’t know. People get stabbed around here all the time and don’t report it.” Then, nodding towards the meeting room, “Unfortunately, those guys in there, they don’t want to hear that.”

In fact, many of the town hall meeting attendees did not want to hear much of anything police officials had to say. When Chief Beck was first introduced, he was booed so loudly that Mr. Ortega, the human relations specialist, had to take the microphone and plead peace.

“I hope we’ve come here tonight to have a conversation,” the Chief said, in English. He went on, introduced himself in Spanish, all the while looking disappointed. To his disappointment, speakers at the microphone were furious.

Q: “Why haven’t you even suspended [Officer Hernandez]?” asked one woman on the verge of tears. (The police in riot gear have made it so she can no longer walk to the Food 4 Less, she said.)

A: “He has been assigned to home. And he will stay there until I am satisfied with the initial stages of the investigation,” Chief Beck said. (From one man in the crowd: “It’s a vacation!”)

Q: Why, when police can talk down terrorists and gang members, did they need to shoot Mr. Jamines?

A: Chief Beck answered: “We don’t teach police officers to disarm people with knives.” (Boos.)

Q: Why is there a picture of the victim’s knife, but no picture of the officer’s weapon?

A: “There is a picture of the knife because you all asked to see it,” the Chief said. (More boos.) “The officer’s weapon is a standard gun issued to all police officers.”

Questions about racist implications in the shooting were fewer and slightly harder to frame (since the three officers involved in the incident were all Latino) but still raised. About this, one man at the microphone asked about racist codes that Rampart Police allegedly used to use, then added that if a Latino goes through that and that racism is internalized, what happens then?

FOR his part, Chief Beck asked only question, rhetorical of course, pleading that while the investigation continues, “We have peace on the streets. Violence in the streets does not help this neighborhood.” He tried to go on, but he was drowned out by the crowd, now yelling: “Violence is what you do!” “We don’t want to hear you!”

So he listened. (He had a translator.) “I hear,” he said later, near the end of the meeting — and, for whatever it’s worth, the Chief was in fact the only town hall meeting attendee to begin a comment at the microphone with such an admission — “that this community wants a louder voice.” He continued, “And if that’s what you want, I’ll give it to you.” For the crowd’s part, they didn’t wait for or seem to need his permission. In fact, may of them had already left (“This hearing’s a fraud!”) to meet outside and be heard on the street.