A Los Angeles Times editorial published Thursday took LAPD Chief William Bratton to task for being “insensitive, even callous” in his remarks following a July 10 police standoff in Watts, a section of South-Central Los Angeles. The standoff ended in the death of 19-month-old Suzie Marie Peña, who was being held hostage by her father, Jose Raul Peña. Both were killed by gunfire from SWAT officers making an ill-fated attempt to rescue the child. Video images from a security system inside Peña’s used-car dealership show him using his daughter as a shield, holding her in one hand while firing a semi-automatic pistol at officers with the other. A police officer was also wounded in the gun battle.
With the mayoral campaign and its demands for decorum now in the past, Bratton is once again the blunt-spoken man he was as commissioner of the NYPD and in his first two years with the LAPD. Speaking at a July 12 news conference, the chief was unreserved in his condemnation of Peña, whom he labeled a “cold-blooded killer.”
“Mr. Peña is not a good man,” Bratton said. “He is not a loving, caring father under any circumstances. You don’t threaten to kill your wife. You don’t attempt to kill your 17-year-old daughter. You don’t threaten to kill your . . . baby and hold that baby as a shield. So all this nonsense–how loving and caring this individual was. He was none of those things.”
Such talk falls hard on the delicate sensibilities at the Times, where apparently no one is so malevolent as to merit a harsh word from the chief of police. “Bratton had good reason to say what he did,” the editorial allows, “[b]ut his statements made a difficult situation worse, forcing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to try to ease tensions by uttering soothing words without defending either the chief or the protesters.”
Indeed, Villaraigosa’s comments were saccharine-sweet, enough to make a man gag. “We’ve lost a child,” he told reporters. “A family has lost a daughter. A police officer has been shot. All of us are caught up in this tragedy. All of us are devastated. But, that’s why it’s important we step back a moment and allow the process to take place. We are going to get to the bottom of this.”
Thus the mayor of Los Angeles presented himself as a dispassionate arbiter who would not allow himself to be seen as supporting his police officers. Such caution might be forgivable if the facts of the case had not been known, but given how much information about Peña had already come to light, the mayor’s caution is rendered into moral obtuseness. By the time Villaraigosa spoke those words this much was already known: Peña was an illegal alien who had been deported after a 1995 conviction for cocaine possession. He returned to Los Angeles illegally and, despite several arrests and other run-ins with police, was never again deported. On the day of the shootout he argued with his wife, who had accused him of having an affair with his stepdaughter. He was drunk and high on cocaine when he threatened to kill himself, his stepdaughter, and his baby. When his stepdaughter phoned police and reported the threats, Peña broke her cell phone. He went to his nearby home and brought his baby daughter back to the car dealership, then fired shots at his stepdaughter and the police officers who had answered her call for help.
Though it was an officer’s bullet that killed Suzie Marie Peña, it was Jose Peña himself who set the deadly chain of events in motion. He could have saved himself and his child at any point during the confrontation simply by laying down his gun and surrendering. Or, if he was determined to die, he could have left his daughter in a place of safety while he fought it out with the police to his depraved heart’s content. Instead, he used his helpless child as a shield while he tried to kill as many police officers as his supply of ammunition would allow.
No, says the Los Angeles Times, we mustn’t be too quick to judge Mr. Peña.
In chiding Chief Bratton for his remarks, the Times editorial invoked memories of events from the LAPD’s troubled history: the 1965 Watts riots, the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots, and some controversial police shootings from the past few years. By trotting out this laundry list of past sins, the Times only serves the interests of a small handful of self-appointed “community activists” who spend their days waiting for some incident that allows them to go before the cameras and proclaim their outrage at the perceived faults of the LAPD. These people owe their livelihoods to perpetuating a culture of complaint, in which life is viewed through the distorted prism of accumulated grievances, whether real or imagined.
Most LAPD officers hadn’t been born in 1965, and most hadn’t finished high school in 1992 when the Rodney King rioters put much of the city to the torch. The scars of these events are mostly healed, yet the events themselves live on and are even magnified in the minds of these activists and on the pages of the Los Angeles Times.
What is needed in South Central Los Angeles, where decent people live in fear of a small but virulent minority, is not more platitudes about understanding and tolerance, not more recitations of past grievances, but more harsh language, more judgment, and above all more condemnation of people like Jose Peña. Sadly, among the city’s leaders, only William Bratton seems willing to deliver it.
–Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.