In the living room of a house on West 65th Street, a few blocks from the 110 Freeway in South Los Angeles, Ina Smalls attaches hair extensions to her ten-year-old daughter's head. Her fingers busily apply glue and long black strands as her daughter sits quietly. Smalls lives across the street from where police fatally shot Ezell Ford shortly after 8pm Monday. She rushed outside when she heard gunshots and found officers standing over her neighbor’s 25-year-old son on the sidewalk.
"I remember seeing him lie on the ground, shot dead, handcuffed on his stomach,” Smalls says. “That's what I remember in my mind."
Smalls, 44, works at Honda Corporate headquarters in Torrance, where she addresses customer complaints. Heartbroken, she says she doesn't believe the LAPD's claim that Ford tried to grab an officer's gun.
"Ezell was killed for no reason," says Smalls.
Out on Smalls’ porch, a half a dozen neighbors nod in agreement when Vandelyn Boyland, 45, also declares the shooting was unjustified.
"We lost another young black male to the LAPD," Boyland says. "And to the Missouri P.D.” Referring to the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, where the fatal shooting of Michael Brown has sparked days of violence, Boyland says “It's no different.” In the view of the group on the porch, police pull the trigger too fast when it comes to black men.
The view is different on the tenth floor of police headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. During a struggle, Ezell Ford had tried to unholster an officer’s weapon, according to Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger.
"When he makes an obvious and conscious and deliberate attempt to take the officer's weapon, many times, as in this case, the officer had no choice than to resort to deadly force,” Paysinger says.
The LAPD has not yet explained why officers confronted Ford in the first place. They have called it an “investigative stop.” But as he defends the officers, Paysinger also promises a full investigation.
While neighbors compare the shooting to the one in Missouri, reaction to Ford's death has been a stark contrast to the violent aftermath of the police killing of Brown.
“The difference between this instance and what we see back east is the confidence the public has in the police department to conduct an immediate, a thorough, a thoughtful investigation,” argues Paysinger, who has been with the LAPD for nearly 40 years. “We do a much better job reaching out to the community” than the department once did, he adds.
The LAPD faced riots of its own two decades ago, when pent up anger over police harassment boiled over in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating. But federally mandated reforms, a more diverse department, and community policing have changed the LAPD, says civil rights attorney Connie Rice.
"Now we have a lot of officers with relationships not just with community leaders but with everyday folks in South LA,” she says. A group of civil rights leaders met with Paysinger Thursday.
But some within the LAPD hold onto the old ways, says Rice, who at one time was hired by the city to assist with police reform.
"There are gang units that have not gotten the memo, and they haven't changed a thing,” she says. Rice can't say whether the Newton Division gang officers who shot Ford are among the remaining "problem" officers.
On West 65th Street, a couple of days after the shooting, an LAPD helicopter buzzed overhead as young African American men and women gathered to light dozens of candles marking the spot on the sidewalk where Ezell Ford fell. The candles are lined up to spell Ezell. A white teddy bear sits amid the flickering light.
Ford's mother Tritobia Ford stands nearby. Ezell was her oldest of six boys and a girl.
“My heart is hurt,” Ford says. “I feel great pain for the death that my son suffered for no reason.” She says she doesn’t feel like saying much else.
“My grandson was not a bad guy,” says Dorothy Clark of Ford. “Why is this constantly happening?” she asks, referring another death of an African American man at the hands of police.
Ford suffered from a "mental challenge," Clark says. She would not elaborate, but adds that he spoke very little. “He didn’t communicate with anybody. Not even us, his immediate family.”
Lacrisha White, 32, walks up with her three boys. She’s on her way home from work as a maintenance worker. She stopped to pay her respects to her cousin, and echoes a familiar sentiment among African Americans in South LA.
"Just from walking down the street, we're considered thugs, drug dealers, gang members," she says. "Not all of us are."
White is a single mother. She worries about her sons joining gangs. She also worries about them getting hurt by police. Her oldest boy speaks up about the death of his cousin.
“At first, I thought the police was supposed to protect people,” says Reginald Parker, who is ten years old. “But they’re actually shooting people for no reason.”
He starts to cry about the death of his cousin.
“They killed my cousin,” he says. “I’m mad and sad at the same time.”