LAPD treatment of blacks in spotlight

2014-09-01 13:52
Demonstrators march in downtown Los Angeles protesting the police shooting death of 24-year-old Ezell Ford earlier in the week. (Kevork Djansezian, AFP)

Demonstrators march in downtown Los Angeles protesting the police shooting death of 24-year-old Ezell Ford earlier in the week. (Kevork Djansezian, AFP)

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Los Angeles - Treatment of blacks by the Los Angeles Police is back in the spotlight after several high-profile cases sparked allegations of abuse: a young, unarmed man killed, a woman beaten, and a producer arrested with no cause.

The incidents come as the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked rioting and protests and renewed the debate on relations between African American and law enforcement in the US.

"If you had asked me a year ago, I would have answered that there has been considerable progress given the LAPD's history of racism and excessive violence," said Earl Hutchinson, a rights activist.

"These recent beatings and shootings ... have raised many questions on whether the LAPD have made the improvements we hoped and thought," he said.

Pressure for transparency

In mid-August, a 25-year-old black man, Ezell Ford, who apparently suffered mental illness, was killed by two patrol officers in southern Los Angeles.

He was alone, unarmed, and walking on the sidewalk. The LAPD, which has not said why he was stopped, said Ford fought with the police officers and was trying to grab one of their guns.

Witnesses cited in local media, however, say Ford was not in any way attacking the officers. Peaceful marches were held after the incident.

Thursday, the LAPD finally released the name of the two officers: Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas.

Hutchinson said the move was a "a good step towards an impartial and transparent investigation," but he lamented that it took so much pressure for the names to be made public.

Racial profiling

According to Steven Lerman, lawyer for the Ford family, the police "legally had to release their names, unless they had proofs of credible threats against these officers."

He called the two officers "vicious thugs," noting that Wampler was already sued in 2011 for having beaten several members of a family, dragging one to an inflatable pool where he held his head underwater.

Lerman - who represented Rodney King, whose beating by LAPD officers, and their eventual acquittal, sparked violent riots in 1992 - plans to file a lawsuit in the Ford case.

Meanwhile, a video posted online last month showed a traffic cop pummelling a woman who was lying on the ground. Her lawyers have filed a suit.

According to police, the officer was trying to stop her as she was walking along the highway and she refused to comply. According to witnesses cited in the lawsuit, the homeless woman, Marlene Finnock, "did nothing aggressive."

And on Thursday, police in Beverly Hills, an upscale town next to Los Angeles, apologised after arresting Charles Belk, an African-American television producer, as he left a restaurant.

Belk "fit the description" of a bank robber they were searching for: a "black male, tall, bald," police said defending the arrest.

Belk recounted the incident on social media and on television, suggesting it could be a learning experience for police: "You can't just haul off to jail the first 'Black male' you see that #FitTheDescription."

Hutchinson urged the Beverly Hills police to take concrete measures against racial profiling.

These types of incidents come "in cycles and these cycles are repeating," said Lerman.

Hutchinson and Lerman both argue that the LAPD is "no better or worse" than police forces in other US cities.

"You had shootings in Chicago, in Kansas City, in Phoenix, Arizona," Hutchinson said.

"Every day you see something new in some city, involving a police department ... always against African Americans."

The LA police union, LAPPL, noted that 57 officers have been killed in the past ten years by unarmed people.

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