Everyone knows there are few certainties in life. Yes, you always hear about death and taxes, but recent events here in Los Angeles have revealed other certainties which are, perhaps not coincidentally, related to the first two.
The first is this: If it is your custom to spend your afternoons getting drunk, wielding knives, and menacing passers-by on busy street corners, and if, after the police have arrived as they must when this behavior has been brought to their attention, you fail to drop your knife when ordered to do so, and if then you further tempt fate by advancing toward a police officer with the knife raised in such a way that the officer reasonably believes his life is imperiled, it is as close to a certainty as this world can produce that you will be shot and maybe even killed.
So discovered — too late — one Manuel Jamines (a.k.a. Manuel Ramirez, a.k.a. Gregorio Luis Perez, a.k.a. heaven knows what else) on the afternoon of September 5 at the corner of 6th Street and Union Avenue, just west of downtown Los Angeles.
The facts presented by the Los Angeles Police Department are these: At about 1 p.m., three officers from the LAPD’s Rampart Division were patrolling that area on bicycles when they were flagged down by people who informed them that Jamines (or whatever his name is) was brandishing a knife and threatening people, including a pregnant woman and some children.
The officers stopped and got off their bikes, and at least one of them ordered Jamines — in both English and Spanish — to drop his knife. Rather than comply with the order and surrender, Jamines raised the knife and advanced on one of the officers as if prepared to attack him. That officer fired his service pistol, striking Jamines and killing him on the spot. The entire encounter lasted about 40 seconds.
There followed four nights of protests, some of them violent, when area residents and some outsiders took to the streets and challenged the many LAPD officers who were called in from all over the city. Protesters threw all manner of projectiles at officers, including rocks, bottles, and eggs, they lit trash cans on fire, they rolled fully loaded Dumpsters weighing hundreds of pounds downhill at them, and when officers chased some of them into nearby apartment buildings, they threw microwave ovens, air conditioning units, television sets, and a variety of other items from upper-floor windows and rooftops. Some also armed themselves with slingshots and used them to shoot marbles at police officers and reporters.
The protests were fueled by what LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has described as a “deliberate campaign of disinformation about the facts concerning this shooting,” the most egregious example of which was the claim that Jamines was unarmed when he was shot. Why some people have chosen to believe this assertion, made by a woman who was on the other side of a traffic-filled, four-lane street rather than the version of events provided by those who were themselves threatened by Jamines and his knife is a mystery that will no doubt go unexplained.
But then again, perhaps it’s no mystery after all. In fact it involves yet another certainty, one involving both death and taxes, which we may sum up simply thus: When a police officer kills someone, no matter how clearly justified he may have been in doing so, there will soon come forth relatives of the deceased who will tearfully claim he would never, never hurt anyone and certainly wouldn’t have threatened a police officer. These assertions will be made in preparation for the inevitable lawsuit and demand for millions of dollars in compensation to be extracted from the taxpayers’ pockets. And, just as anyone who follows these stories here in L.A. might have expected, along came Los Angeles attorney Luis Carrillo, sometimes referred to as the Latino Johnnie Cochran, who joined the protesters on Tuesday and presumably handed out a business card or two to Jamines’s relatives.
But no one should expect an easy payout to emerge from this shooting. For proof of this, one need look no further than the statement made on Sept. 9 by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
“Let’s be clear, and I will be, about what happened in the Westlake area,” Villaraigosa told reporters. There was a man with a knife. That man with a knife was threatening individuals, innocent people who were on the street there. That man was in close proximity – in fact, the facts will show that actually he had his hand on at least one person at some point in that altercation.”
“We’ve got to go through an investigation,” Villaraigosa continued. “But when it’s all said and done, I’ll guarantee you what’s going to come out is that these guys are heroes, and I stand by them.”
There is nowhere in this country a politician more sympathetic to immigrants — both legal and, like Jamines, illegal — than Mayor Villaraigosa. Nor is there one quicker to wet his finger and test the political winds before taking a stand. If there were even the slightest doubt as to the propriety of the officers’ actions in this shooting, Villaraigosa would have — as he’s done in the past — straddled the fence between supporting the officers and allowing for the possibility that they may have acted improperly. Given how politically charged the Jamines shooting has become, it was a pleasant surprise to see him come out so forcefully in support of the officers.
So too, was Chief Beck quick to come to his officers’ defense, something his predecessor, William Bratton, was famously loath to do even when the political downside was minimal. Beck recorded a video, posted on the LAPD’s internal website, in which he thanked the officers who had been deployed to deal with the protests. “You’ve been the subject of taunts,” he said in the video, “you’ve been the subject of slurs, none of which you deserve, and none of which the department deserves. But you’ve handled it as professionals. I want to thank you for that.” He concluded the video by saying, “You do a dangerous job, you’ve got to know that I’m standing with you.”
It’s inconceivable that Bratton would have made such a tape in the same circumstances.
But Beck’s tone did not sit well with the editors at the Los Angeles Times, who criticized his performance at a community meeting held Sept. 10 at a school a few blocks from where Jamines was killed. “[Beck] was booed, denounced as the protector of a killer and as a chief of assassins,” said the Times.
In response, Beck promised a fair and transparent investigation that would determine whether the shooting was within departmental policy. It was the right message, no doubt, but his words struck a clinical, dispassionate note to a crowd shouting for justice. To them, Beck did not seem to be addressing the fundamental question, which was not whether the shooting was justifiable according to the rules, but whether it was just.
I was not present at the meeting. Instead, I was near the scene of the shooting, dodging the odd egg and what have you, and enduring those taunts and slurs the chief referred to in his video. But I disagree with the Times’s characterization of the people at the meeting, most of whom went directly from the school to the shooting scene. They did not shout for justice, as the Times claims; they shouted for vengeance. They demanded, against all evidence thus far produced, that the involved officers be arrested and tried for murder, and that the LAPD in effect surrender control of the neighborhood to the residents, a good number of whom are illegal aliens from Mexico and Central America.
I had the opportunity to have a discussion with a few of the more rational and sober members of the crowd, all of whom asked me why the officer had to shoot Jamines rather than use some lesser level of force. Like many police officers, I carry a folding knife similar to the one Jamines was said to be wielding when he was shot. I showed it to my interlocutors, holding the serrated blade close to their faces. “Do you think I could hurt you with this?” I asked, watching their eyes widen at the readily apparent lethality of the blade. “And do you think you could stop me from hurting you without shooting me?” None of them had a ready answer.
And no one else does, either. Because if you come at a cop with a knife, you’d better plan on getting shot.
It’s a certainty.