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Neighbors Mourn Child Killed in Shootout and Say the Police Should Have Held Their Fire

Published: July 17, 2005

LOS ANGELES, July 16 - Neither the stream of visitors paying their respects to 19-month-old Suzie Marie Peņa nor the anger over how she died has abated in the neighborhood where she was killed by the police a week ago in a shootout between her father and SWAT officers.

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Monica Almeida/The New York Times

In Los Angeles, visitors lined up Friday at the home of 19-month-old Suzie Marie Pena to pay their respects.

Residents gathered at a makeshift memorial outside the run-down car dealership where the girl and her father, Jose Raul Peņa, 34, died as he held her to his chest last Sunday while exchanging gunfire with the police for nearly three hours.

As crowds filed by Suzie Marie's closed coffin at the Peņa home during a wake on Friday night, many in the Watts neighborhood in south-central Los Angeles seemed as angry with the Los Angeles Police Department as they were with Mr. Peņa.

"They could have brought in a negotiator, or tear gas, or beanbags," said Al Alguilar, an advocate for migrant workers. "But no, it's: 'A Mexican lives there. Just blast him. Who cares if he has a baby?' "

Standing outside the gated dealership that Mr. Peņa owned, Elbert Smith of Watts pointed to the spot where the shooting occurred.

"Look at those bullet holes," Mr. Smith said. "This is so sad, it makes me sick to my stomach. I actually cried last night."

Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa, who was sworn into office two weeks ago, said preliminary indications were that the police had acted properly.

[On Saturday, a funeral in Spanish for the toddler drew about 150 people, including Mayor Villaraigosa, to San Miguel Church in Watts, The Associated Press reported.]

An infamous history of friction exists between the police and residents in south-central Los Angeles, a tension that has at times erupted into violent clashes that have become the focus of worldwide attention.

In March 1991, the videotaping of Los Angeles police officers beating a black driver, Rodney G. King, caused national outrage. But two years later, when a jury acquitted the officers on most of the charges, it touched off three days of rioting that left 55 people dead and injured thousands.

Decades earlier, in August 1965, Watts exploded into violence after a black driver was pulled over by a white police officer and, according to witnesses, force was used as he was taken into custody. Six days of rioting left 34 people dead, caused tens of millions of dollars in damage and left an indelible imprint of urban violence on the national consciousness.

A generation removed from that upheaval, the death of Suzie Marie Peņa has again angered and frustrated Watts residents, though not to the boiling point of 40 years ago.

At a meeting between community leaders and police officials on Friday night, tensions were evident.

Assistant Chief George Gascon said the events began when police officers went to Mr. Peņa's home last Sunday to investigate a complaint from his wife, Lorena Lopez, that he had threatened her with a gun. Mr. Peņa was not present, but the police were called to his car lot about two hours later in response to a 911 call from Mr. Peņa's 16-year-old stepdaughter, and the standoff began then.

At the meeting, Mr. Gascon showed a surveillance video from inside Mr. Peņa's business. His stepdaughter was able to flee, but the video showed him holding his 19-month-old daughter as he brandished a handgun and fired several shots.

"We have a suspect that has just attempted to kill his 16-year-old stepdaughter," Mr. Gascon said, "and you have a suspect who has been shooting at the police. And we've got a suspect who has not hesitated, in fact actively has used his 17- to 18-month-old baby as a human shield when he's engaging with police in a gun battle. And we have the possibility of additional hostages inside the building."

But Mr. Gascon's explanation brought an angry response from at least one of the 100 residents who attended the meeting.

"I'm here to denounce the L.A.P.D. for the most outrageous, inhumane activity I've seen," said Melanie Lomax, former president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, an independent body that looks into the use of force by police officers. "The only person in this situation who had no choice was that baby."

Next door to Mr. Peņa's business, Jerry Williams, the manager of the South Central Car Wash, recalled a brief conversation he had with Mr. Peņa on the day of the shooting. He said Mr. Peņa, a veteran of the El Salvador Army, had complained of a situation that was "driving him crazy." Within an hour the armed standoff began; that would lead to the deaths of Mr. Peņa and his daughter when SWAT officers fired after Mr. Peņa shot at the police.

"The bottom line is that it could have been handled a lot better," Mr. Williams said, "and in the opinion of most of the community, the question is, Why was this concluded so rapidly?"

"In terms of the way we're dealt with," he continued, "the perception of the Police Department is that everybody in there thinks they're dealing with a potential gang member, a former gang member or a current one. If something like this was to happen in Beverly Hills, and some dentist goes berserk - how would they handle the situation? The perception here is that they're going to deal with it entirely differently."


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Photo: Birmingham, 1963
Photo: Birmingham, 1963