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Police mobilized Wednesday to avoid more mayhem on the streets after being taken by surprise at consecutive nights of violent protests sparked by the fatal shooting of a knife-wielding man.
The police chief, city officials and consuls general from three Latin American countries scheduled a community meeting as senior officers tried to reach out to residents of the central Los Angeles neighborhood where the man was shot.
Sunday’s killing of Manuel Jamines, 37, has turned into a rallying point as community members, aided by outsiders, have taken to the streets for two nights running and used the death to highlight past injustices and vent ongoing frustrations.
Police have defended the killing and said they’ve been taken aback by the level of protest for a case that seemed like a clear-cut case of justifiable use of force. Each year, the LAPD is involved in up to about 40 shootings — those that typically cause controversy involve unarmed or surrendered suspects.
Residents outraged over the killing have said police should have handled the situation differently and say the surprise by department brass shows that the force is out of touch with the people.
Three bicycle officers were flagged down Sunday by people concerned about a man wielding a knife. The officers approached the suspect and told him in Spanish and English to put down the weapon.
Instead, Jamines raised the knife above his head and lunged at Officer Frank Hernandez, a 13-year veteran of the department, said Capt. Kris Pitcher, who heads the Los Angeles Police Department’s force investigation division.
Hernandez shot Jamines twice in the head. He died at the scene. Several witnesses later told police Jamines had been drinking.
“They could have used pepper spray or a Taser gun,” said Salvador Sanabria, executive director of nonprofit community group El Rescate. “The community … reacted this way because they thought there was another way to deal with a drunk guy.”
Pitcher said Jamines was an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala. DNA tests were being carried out to determine whose blood was on the knife. Officers received unconfirmed reports he may have attacked someone before police arrived.
The officers involved were placed on administrative leave, a standard move after shootings.
An estimated 300 protesters who gathered outside the local police station pelted officers Tuesday night with eggs, rocks and bottles and set a trash bin on fire. Others dropped household items from apartment buildings.
Officers fired at least two rounds of foam projectiles at demonstrators and 22 people were arrested, mainly for failure to disperse and unlawful assembly.
A night earlier, three officers were slightly injured by thrown objects and four people were arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor inciting a riot.
Police Chief Charlie Beck said he was surprised by the extent of the protests. Though he was withholding judgment on the case pending an investigation, he said the shooting seemed relatively non-controversial.
“This was a tragic thing, I wish it would have worked out different,” Beck said. “But the facts are very straightforward.”
Beck said the protests were the culmination of a variety of frustrations, including a terrible economy and a feeling of victimization among immigrants who say the U.S. population likes to blame them for many of society’s shortcomings.
“As you polarize society, this is the kind of thing that can push forward,” the chief said.
He also blamed activist groups, including the Revolutionary Communist Party, for co-opting peaceful vigils and inciting violent protests.
Beck patrolled the area as a captain in the aftermath of the Rampart corruption scandal, in which an LAPD anti-gang unit was the focus of allegations that officers framed and beat innocent people. He said community outreach had improved considerably since then but acknowledged his department could do more.
Sanabria said residents were already angry with the police over strict enforcement of public drinking laws and clampdowns on street vendors. The police department doesn’t go after immigrants based on their legal immigration status, but Sanabria said officers still could be more sensitive.
“They don’t understand the complexity of the ethnic demographic population they have here,” Sanabria said.
He added that Jamines’ first language apparently was a Mayan dialect, not Spanish, and said some police need to be trained in it.
The LAPD is vastly different today from the organization it was 20 years ago, with much greater racial and gender diversity. All three officers involved in Sunday’s incident were Latino and spoke Spanish, former police chief William Bratton noted.