Infant's tragic death shows need for police, community trust
July 20, 2005
The tragic death of 19-month-old Susie Peña Lopez in South Central Los Angeles may mark the end of community-based policing as we know it.
According to reports, Susie's father, Jose Raul Peña, allegedly threatened his family and used his daughter as a human shield outside his auto sales business.
Cops say that while holding his daughter in his arms and answering the cell phone, Peña shot at them with his free hand.
The incident made national news and has once again brought to the forefront the issue of excessive police force.
Peña's family disputes the police version, saying they offered to talk to Peña and persuade him to release the toddler. After an exchange of fire, police say they believed Peña was wounded, and the SWAT team stormed the car lot.
An officer was wounded as three-dozen officers swarmed in and fired more than five-dozen rounds into a small office. More than 60 bullet holes riddled the walls, and Susie lay
dead from a bullet in her head.
No question, Peña was disturbed, and his actions cannot be excused. He should certainly not be classified as a victim.
But there are serious questions as to whether police should have talked to him and isolated him rather than opening fire.
The relationship between cops and members of minority communities have traditionally been tenuous, at best. Nowhere is this more true than in Los Angeles, infamous for the 1965 Watts Riots and the 1991 Rodney King beating.
Over the years, law enforcement officials across the country have tried to implement community-based policing to curb urban crime and develop trust in the areas they serve. Such a practice is based on the principle that police officers and private citizens can work together to solve the problems that affect our communities and contribute to crime. Advocates want to change the "them and us" culture that has sometimes led to urban riots.
Unfortunately, critics such as former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani openly questioned whether police should be doing "social work."
And Congress and the Bush administration have further harmed relations between police officers and communities of color, especially Latinos, by encouraging state and local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws.
By trying to use the issue of national security and terrorism to go after undocumented residents, they are exacerbating a climate of fear and distrust between police and Latinos.
In frustration, many members of the Latino community in Los Angeles are pointing a finger at newly elected Latino Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, saying that his call for patience and visiting the wounded officer gave L.A. Police Chief William J. Bratton the wrong signal.
Hiring more police officers is not the answer, as Villaraigosa has suggested.
Instead, what is needed is more police oversight, better training and a reform in the brash law enforcement culture.
Meanwhile, Lorena Lopez cries for a daughter.
In all of the politics and controversy, we must not forget that Susie Peña Lopez is dead.
Rodolfo F. Acuña is professor of Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Anything But Mexican: Chicanos in Contemporary Los Angeles" (Verso, 1996). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.