Charlotte Watson waited in a line that stretched all the way down the center aisle of Paradise Baptist Church in South Los Angeles Tuesday night before it was her turn to address LAPD Chief Charlie Beck.
“We feel like prisoners in our own community,” she told Beck amid cheers from about 200 people gathered to vent their anger over the fatal policing shooting of Ezell Ford, a 25-year-old unarmed mentally ill African American man. “They approach black men assuming that every black male is in a gang,” Watson said of LAPD officers.
Signs on a nearby wall read “Justice for Ezell F.” and “Don’t shoot, let us live.” A poster prepared by the Youth Justice Coalition listed the names of 304 “officer involved killings” in LA County from 2007-2014. There have been numerous protests over Ford’s killing over the last few days.
Watson, 53, a lifelong resident of South LA, said she’s warned her son often to be careful around police. “I don’t plan on being one of these mothers out here crying because my son has been shot down.”
At a meeting designed to calm tensions, Beck turned to members of Ford’s family sitting in the pews and offered his condolences. “My heart breaks for you, but remember this is equally hard for both sides,” he said, referring to the officers who shot Ford and the department.
The statement drew groans from the audience of mostly African Americans. Angry shouting and catcalls punctuated the meeting as Beck attempted to explain that he could not provide much information about the shooting.
“We have to find out all the facts,” said Beck, noting that the investigation into the August 11 shooting was just a week old. “We want the truth just as much as you want the truth.”
Beck would not elaborate on why police stopped Ford. An LAPD spokesman has said it was an “investigative stop” by gang officers in the 200 block of West 65th Street. A statement release shortly after the shooting said Ford tackled one of the officers and tried to grab his gun.
Ford’s family doesn’t believe that account. Tribotia Ford has said her son was mentally ill and that the shooting was unjustified. The chief pleaded for witnesses to come forward in a neighborhood where distrust of police runs deep.
“We strongly believe there are witnesses who can come forward. We are in great need of that,” said Beck.
In an indication of the sensitivity of the case, Police Commission President Steve Soboroff, LAPD Inspector General Alex Bustamante, and LA Deputy District Attorney James Garrison sat at the front of the room with Beck. Garrison heads the DA’s Justice System Integrity Division, which is investigating the shooting.
The head of the police union and City Councilman Curren Price, who represents the area, also attended. Price said he “also wants answers“ from police, and that the meeting was an attempt to allow the community to express its anger in a peaceful manner.
“Los Angeles is not Ferguson,” said Price, referring to the city in Missouri where the police killing of Michael Brown has sparked days of unrest. “Much work has gone into changing the culture of our police department. Our progress is evidenced this evening by the presence of our chief of police and his command staff.”
But the images of Ferguson were on the mind of many in the crowd.
“Do you have automatic weapons and armored piercing bullets and tanks?” Kenneth Wilkins asked Beck. The chief said the LAPD did have heavy weaponry, but use of it was restricted to the SWAT team.
There were more groans from the crowd.
Then Wilkins, who is black, described how police always ask him if he’s been convicted of a felony every time he’s pulled over. ““Do you ask white boys if they’ve been convicted of a felony?”
Some have criticized the LAPD for delaying release of the autopsy on Ford. Beck said detectives wanted to obtain statements from witnesses who were not influenced by news coverage of the autopsy. He said it would be released “soon.”
The chief also promised to release the names of the officers involved in the incident, as soon as the department determined they were not in danger of retaliation. Beck did not say when that would be. A department spokesman said there currently was no evidence of a credible threat against the officers.
Many left the meeting frustrated they didn’t get more answers from the chief. Others were more optimistic.
“People are talking and that’s important,” said Lydia Hollie. “It could be in the streets. It could be a lot worse.”