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Sandy Banks: Deputy chief's death a loss for community

March 2, 2009 |  7:27 am

He didn’t die a hero in a hail of bullets, but he will leave a hero’s legacy. And though I never even met Deputy Chief Kenneth Garner, he came to represent for me the new face of the LAPD. For years, I’ve heard from high-ranking black officers that the Los Angeles Police Department was changing under Chief Bill Bratton -- that a commitment to supporting, rather than just policing, struggling neighborhoods was real, and rippling through lives and communities.

Last week, I saw the evidence in a conversation with Garner. I’d written a column last month about Eddie Dotson, a homeless man who had set up an elaborate, home-like encampment under a freeway overpass near USC. Last winter, a similar shelter of his had been busted up by the LAPD. So I called around before the column ran to see whether publicizing Dotson’s "home" would get him kicked out again.

The officers I spoke with were sympathetic, but promised only to "try to do no harm." The day after the column ran, Garner -- the area commander -- called me at home with a straightforward pledge: His officers would not disrupt the homeless man’s encampment, would not punish him for his homelessness. But he went an extra step.

Garner asked me lots of questions about Dotson -- his history, his mental state, his demeanor, his ability to care for himself and contribute to others. He recognized why an independent sort like Dotson would chafe at the confines of a homeless shelter. He offered a possible solution: USC might have a vacant building nearby that needed tending. That would get Dotson off the street, satisfy his need for order and self-sufficiency and help the university. Garner promised to talk with USC officials and get back to me this week.

On Sunday, Garner died unexpectedly. His pledge was a small thing, but resonated loudly with me. He went above and beyond a policeman’s call, thought not just about safety and legalities but about the needs of one struggling man -- his desires and his dignity. He was balancing the needs of his community with a homeless man’s humanity. I hung up the phone feeling grateful and relieved. And now I am left to imagine what impact a man like Garner must have made everyday on the people he met policing the streets. What a loss for us. And for the LAPD.

-- Sandy Banks