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LAPD braces for protests after Police Commission's finding in fatal shooting

March 15, 2011 |  5:10 pm

A Los Angeles police officer acted within department rules when he fatally shot a Guatemalan day laborer armed with a knife last year in an encounter that triggered days of unrest, the LAPD’s oversight body ruled Tuesday.

Bracing for the possibility that the decision by the Los Angeles Police Commission could ignite another round of violent protests in the Westlake neighborhood where the man was shot, LAPD officials preemptively dispatched a large contingent of officers to the area before the decision was announced. In the hours after the commission’s finding, however, the streets around the shooting site were calm.

At a tense news conference attended by diplomats from several Central American consulates, commission President John Mack called the shooting “a long, particularly sad incident for all involved.”

Mack, in an effort to preempt claims of a whitewash by police critics, said the department’s investigation into the shooting, and the commission’s review of the inquiry, had been “comprehensive” and “exhaustive.”

Regardless, Luis Carillo, an attorney representing the dead man’s wife in a federal civil lawsuit against the city, denounced the decision, saying, “The script had already been written … true to form they just followed it.”

The unanimous ruling by the five-person body, along with the decision Tuesday by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office not to file any criminal charges in the case, fully exonerated Officer Frank Hernandez, a 14-year department veteran, of any wrongdoing.

In clearing Hernandez, the commission went along with the recommendation of LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, who recently presented the department’s investigation of the shooting to the civilian panel, which then reviewed the findings and voted on the case in closed session.

The killing occurred on a Sunday afternoon in September, when Hernandez, who was assigned to a bicycle unit in the LAPD’s Rampart Division, responded with two other officers to a report of a disturbance at the corner of 6th Street and Union Avenue -- the heart of the densely populated, Latino immigrant neighborhood.

On the way, the officers were flagged down by a passer-by, who told them a man with a knife was threatening people on the street. At the intersection, the officers found Manuel Jamines, 37, who was drunk and holding a knife, according to an account of the incident given by Mack.

The officers, Mack said, repeatedly ordered Jamines in Spanish and English to drop the weapon. Jamines instead raised the knife and charged at Hernandez, who fired two shots, according to Mack. Jamines was struck in the head and died on the street in front of a crowd of onlookers.

Mack emphasized that in reaching its decision, the commission had not relied exclusively on Hernandez’s account of the shooting. Testing on the knife recovered at the scene found Jamines’ DNA and several eyewitnesses backed the officer’s account, Mack said. Mack acknowledged that investigators had spoken to a few witnesses who said they had not seen a knife in Jamines’ hand, but said those witnesses had not had a clear view of the encounter.

The shooting triggered a few days of protests and some rioting in the neighborhood, some of it instigated by anti-police groups that worked to stoke anger among the area’s residents.

Many protesters questioned why the officers hadn’t used a non-lethal weapon to subdue Jamines or shot him with the intent to wound him. They also made issue of the fact that Hernandez had been involved in a controversial shooting once before. The officer was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing in that case.

Beck, at a later news conference with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, said investigators had looked closely at that previous incident, but said it was somewhat irrelevant since the evidence in the Jamines shooting supported Hernandez’s account.

Beck added that the officers were not equipped with Tasers or other non-lethal projectiles. He said officers are forbidden from aiming to wound suspects with a gunshot, because of the potential for missing and hitting a bystander.

“Officers have an obligation to protect people and protect themselves,” Beck said. “They don’t get to tie and they certainly don’t get to lose.”

That rationale was met with suspicion by some immigrant-rights groups.

“The Police Commission ruling … leaves us bereft, disappointed and with more unanswered questions,” said Angelica Salas, executive director for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. “It is no small matter to use a weapon that can take a man’s life and not have to face serious consequences for those actions. We cannot right a wrong with another wrong and the use of lethal force against Mr. Jamines was wrong in our view.”

The days of turmoil that erupted after the shooting caught elected and police officials off-guard and exposed a weak spot for a department that had made a concerted effort over the last decade to build ties with minority communities where distrust of the police once ran deep. The anger over the shooting, which objectively wasn’t even the most controversial police killing last year, came to be seen by many as an expression of broader frustrations in the poor, immigrant neighborhood.

“Early on it was very, very clear that this wasn’t just about the tragic loss of life of Mr. Jamines,” Villaraigosa said. “It was also about a community that feels that oftentimes it is alone, living in a time when immigrant communities are oftentimes vilified on talk radio and TV.... The unemployment rate and poverty rate there is high.... One of the things that came out of this is the realization that we all need to have a better relationship with this community.”

RELATED:

Ruling due Tuesday in LAPD shooting that sparked protests, clashes

LAPD officer acted lawfully in shooting of day laborer, oversight panel rules

Demonstration against LAPD shooting draws a broad spectrum of protesters

-- Joel Rubin at LAPD headquarters

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