LOS ANGELES — The shooting death of 19-month-old Susie Marie Lopez by Los Angeles police officers July 10 in Watts could prove to be not only a legal and public relations problem for the Los Angeles Police Department, but a major political problem for its chief, William J. Bratton.
The killing of Susie Lopez at the hands of police came during a siege and shootout between her father, Jose Raul Pena, and police officers at Pena’s used car dealership in the heart of the low-income Latino/African American Watts community on a Sunday afternoon. Pena, 34, was inside his office holding Susie, exchanging fire intermittently with the police, who after a two-and-a-half-hour standoff rushed into the office and shot Susie and her father. One policeman was wounded in the exchange of gunfire.
Chief Bratton, who arrived at the scene after the shooting ended, told the press the next day that the officers had no choice but to go into the office. Family members, however, said they felt the situation could have been resolved peacefully. Newly installed Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called for patience and urged the public to await further investigations into the tragedy.
The next day Bratton called Pena “a cold-blooded killer” and said he was responsible for Susie’s death. The child’s mother, Lorena Lopez, who had lived with Pena for six years, said, “The police killed my daughter … I want justice.” Later in the week the police department acknowledged the child had been shot by police.
Throughout Los Angeles, sharp questioning of the police officers’ actions arose in the neighborhoods and in the media. In the ensuing warm summer evenings, large numbers of primarily Latino and African American youth congregated at the scene of the shooting, where an altar for Susie was fashioned. The police were on alert.
Assistant Chief George Gascon held a Friday evening community meeting at the police department’s downtown headquarters July 15 to present more information about the incident. The chief, he explained, was out of town in Boston attending to his mother, who was ill. About 100 people attended the meeting.
Gascon’s presentation, which echoed the earlier comments of the chief, included video footage of Pena holding the child with one hand and firing at police with the other. It included images of a bottle of tequila, some cocaine, an automatic pistol and clips of unused bullets. Gascon said the police had believed there were other hostages in the office who Pena might shoot. It turned out there were none.
After Gascon’s speech, about half of the audience was not satisfied. The first person to the microphone asked why the meeting was on a Friday night, 10-15 miles away from Watts in a downtown area where only paid parking, located blocks away, was available.
Another speaker was Melanie Lomax, an African American civil rights attorney who had been a police commissioner under Mayor Tom Bradley in the early ‘90s at the time of the Rodney King controversy.
“I denounce the LAPD,” Lomax said. “This is outrageous … the police were shooting to kill,” resulting in the child’s death she said. “Los Angeles has been turned into an OK Corral with shootings every month. We need another police chief.”
Al Diamante, president of the Mexican American Bar Association, said, “The underlying question is, was it preventable?”
Numerous people asked why family members were not allowed to try to calm or negotiate with Pena. Others asked why tear gas wasn’t used. A longtime Watts community activist known as Big Money Griff echoed the concern of many, saying, “We don’t believe you were sensitive enough.” Another speaker said Chief Bratton “has a lack of sensitivity to people of color — every time he talks to people of color he is not sensitive.” Many applauded.
Bratton has been called a “transnational policeman.” He served as police chief in Boston and New York and consulted on police work in London. He was appointed by the previous mayor, James Hahn, over a former African American chief who is now a city councilman. Shortly after his election victory, Mayor Villaraigosa announced the nomination of four new police commissioners to replace Hahn appointees.
There will be multiple investigations of the incident. The police will have theirs, a federal consent decree due to past misconduct will require another probe, and the family has retained legal representation. The African American and Latino communities and media will continue to raise questions.
At the hearing, speakers recalled the names of others involved in run-ins with the police going back weeks, months, years and decades. It will be a long summer for the chief, the mayor and the community.