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On Tuesday, our camera crew arrived in the South L.A. neighborhood of Ezell Ford, the young, mentally ill, unarmed black man who was shot and killed by police two days after the killing of Mike Brown.
Moments later, steps from the spot where Ezell Ford was killed, a Los Angeles Police Department patrol car raced down the street, chasing down a black suspect. Two white officers seized the man, who grabbed a fistful of an officer’s shirt. They took him down. At one point in the scuffle, the man appeared to reach for an officer’s gun. Neighbors quickly gathered to jeer at the officers.
Each moment was an expectant one, high tension for long minutes, and it’s eerily easy to imagine how nerves on both sides could've caused this situation to escalate quickly.
Everything in dispute
On August 11, some 1,800 miles from Ferguson, Missouri, the 25-year-old Ford, who was well-known and well-liked in the community, was walking through the tough neighborhood he called home. What’s clear is that two veteran officers caught up to him and Ford was killed. Everything else is in dispute.
The LAPD declined America Tonight’s request for an on-camera interview. But by phone, the agency explained that the officers tried to speak to Ford, and that he kept walking and “made suspicious movements,” including attempting to conceal his hands. The LAPD said that when officers grabbed and attempted to stop Ford, he turned and grabbed one of them. During the struggle, they fell to the ground and Ford attempted to remove the officer’s handgun from its holster. Police said the other officer then fired his handgun and the officer on the ground fired his backup weapon.
Neighbors claiming to have witnessed the shooting offer vastly different accounts. One person claimed Ford put his hands up and was wrestled to the ground.
Yvette Felarpa, who has taken part in the daily protests on the sidewalk where Ford was killed, said word in the neighborhood is that the day before Ford was shot, he and a few friends had a laugh at an officer who had clumsily dropped his gun clip.
“I don’t have the exact words, but he threatened to hurt him,” she said. “The next day, Ezell – who everyone in the community, including the cops, knows struggles with mental health issues – unarmed, everyone knows that – walking down the street, two cops tackled him.”
She added that witnesses say there was a pause between shots: either two shots, later followed by another, or one followed by two.
“Which suggests that the cops, whatever the last or the last two shots, were intending to kill him,” she said.
Residents also said Ford’s death is like many others involving the police and young black men: too frequent and awfully senseless. And the differing accounts between the LAPD’s version of events and those of so-called eyewitnesses, who have not officially come forward, only increases the mistrust that the community feels is simmering below the surface.
'Is there a war?'
On Tuesday night, those tensions bubbled up in a South L.A. church, as LAPD Chief Charlie Beck faced black community members, many of whom complained that the police unfairly target black men.
“I came here tonight because I respect the people in this room, and I hope you respect me,” Beck said. “And if we treat each other that way, and if we treat this investigation that way and people live and work that way, then we can move forward from this.”
As Beck emphasized that the investigation was only a week old, a crowd of more than 200 shouted and interrupted, the room scattered with pictures of Ford.
Another cause for outrage is why the LAPD approached Ford in the first place. While the police described it as a legitimate “investigative stop,” people in the community are still left with questions.
“What’s that? What’s an ‘investigative stop?’” said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a radio host, political analyst and outspoken advocate in L.A.’s black community. “Are you saying there was suspicion he broke into the liquor store? Is there suspicion there was a car that was stolen?... Is there suspicion that there was actual crime? That’s typically why you stop people.”
Hutchinson said the timing of the killing has also stirred up powerful feelings.
“Now you have Michael Brown in Ferguson. You have Ezell Ford in Los Angeles. A few weeks ago, you had an Eric Garner chokehold in New York City,” he said. “Things were coming together all at the same time and people are asking, is there a war? Is there a targeting against young African-American males especially, and maybe occasionally females, too?”
For both the community and the police, lessons have been taken to heart since the L.A. riots sparked by Rodney King’s beating 20 years ago. Hutchinson said L.A. hasn’t seen a furious reaction on the scale of Ferguson because there’s already an established outlet for this kind of outrage.
“You’ve got a number of civil rights organizations pull up as soon as something happens, you have press conferences,” he said. “…In Ferguson, it’s just like the Wild West. We have nothing.”
But relations have not completely healed between the LAPD and communities like Ezell Ford’s in South L.A., a community that’s now experiencing a fresh round of grief.
For Steve Soboroff, who heads up the police commission overseeing the Ford shooting, one obvious solution is a body camera on every police officer’s lapel.
“If these cameras had been on, these problems… they wouldn’t even happen, they wouldn’t escalate,” he said. “But secondly, everybody here would like to know the truth. The truth sets you free.”
Despite recommendations made over the last 20 years, the police commission only secured private funding for lapel cameras only last year. They’ve been in the trial phase since January and many L.A. police officers don’t have them.
After we witnessed the white officers chasing down and scuffling with a black suspect on Tuesday, the suspect was taken into custody and no one was hurt. The crowds then dispersed – but their anger was still apparent.