An angry crowd greeted Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck with boos, whistles and chants of "Justicia!" Wednesday night at a community meeting intended to calm residents after police fatally shot a man they said brandished a knife.
A crowd of more than 300 packed a school in the Westlake neighborhood where an officer shot Manuel Jamines, 37, to death Sunday after he allegedly lunged toward the officer with a switchblade.
The crowd jeered Beck when he defended officers by reading a witness's account of how Jamines threatened her.
Beck said the witness, a neighborhood resident who was not named, told three bicycle officers that a man with blood on his hands tried to stab her and a pregnant woman next to her.
As the woman ran away, she heard the three officers telling the suspect to drop the knife, then she heard three or four shots, turned around and saw Jamines on the sidewalk, Beck said.
"She referred to the officers as her angels who had descended from heaven to save her life and that of the pregnant lady," Beck said.
The crowd exploded when they heard the witness's account. One man in the audience called out that the story sounded like it was made up in Hollywood.
Beck and city officials scheduled the meeting to counter rumors and reach out to residents of the central Los Angeles neighborhood where Jamines was shot.
Days of protests
Sunday's killing turned into a rallying point as community members, aided by outsiders, took to the streets Monday and Tuesday night and used the death to highlight past injustices and vent ongoing frustrations.
On Wednesday night, even while the meeting with Beck was going on, police in riot gear were skirmishing with protesters nearby, The Los Angeles Times reported.
Two people were arrested, the Times said.
Near Union Avenue and 6th Street, protesters hurled trash and other objects at officers, the Times said. The street was strewn with trash from overturned bins, it said.
Police were trying to push the crowd west on 6th, just a short walk from the middle school where Beck and other officials were addressing the meeting, the Times said.
A few hundred people were lined up on the sidewalk outside the school, it said.
Police have defended the killing and said they've been taken aback by the high emotions following what looked 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 the top brass should have handled the situation differently and say department officials' surprise shows the agency is out of touch with the people.
Use of deadly force
Authorities have said the bicycle officers told Jamines 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 LAPD's Force Investigation Division.
Salvador Sanabria, executive director of the nonprofit community group El Rescate, said Jamines' first language apparently was a Mayan dialect, not Spanish, and said some police need to be trained in it.
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," Sanabria said. "The community ... reacted this way because they thought there was another way to deal with a drunk guy."
Pitcher said Jamines was an illegal immigrant from Guatemala. The day laborer was carrying a switchblade knife with a serrated, 3-inch blade. The police captain pledged an open and transparent investigation into the shooting.
The other officers involved were Steven Rodriguez and Paris Pineda, both five-year veterans of the department. All the officers were Latino and speak Spanish.
Police said the knife was covered in blood, and DNA tests were being carried out to determine whose it was. Officers received unconfirmed reports Jamines may have attacked someone before police arrived, Pitcher said.
The officers involved were placed on administrative leave, a standard move after shootings.
History of clashes
Protesters who gathered outside the local police station Tuesday night pelted officers 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 arrested 22 people, 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.
The LAPD has long struggled with image problems in poorer communities.
On May 1, 2007, police pummeled immigration rights marchers and reporters with batons and shot rubber bullets into the crowd. The city was gripped by widespread riots in 1992 after four white officers were acquitted of the videotaped beating of Rodney King, a black motorist.
Beck said the recent 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.
He also blamed activist groups, including the Revolutionary Communist Party, for co-opting peaceful vigils and inciting violent protests. Attempts to reach an RCP spokesman were not immediately successful.
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 has 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.