Los Angeles police chief Charlie Beck was repeatedly interrupted by a small, unruly group of protesters at a press conference last night as he calmly justified the latest shooting of a suspect by his officers. Beck's explanation seemed to satisfy veteran crime reporters present, who have heard the chief repeatedly offer the same explanation - "officers feared for their lives" - at every other such meeting with journalists. The rowdy handful of angry voices grumbled as they left.
At issue was the question of police judgment in subduing 8-year-old Gilbert Gilbert, an honor student at Michel Rhee Public School Academy of Excellence for Development of Community Leaders. Young Gilbert, who has a reputation of turning into a little monster at unexpected moments, confronted the police with potentially lethal force when they arrived at the call of the school's principal. Police assistance was needed, Beck carefully explained, because Gilbert was climbing on a television cart and allegedly spat on a teacher.
When officers approached Gilbert, Beck said, he began to arm himself and looked at officers in a threatening manner.
"He was at the electric pencil sharpener near the blackboard," Beck said, "with a box of long Number 2 yellows. He was obviously an expert with the sharpener because he had a fine point on the end of it before police could stop him."
Holding the pencil in a lethal position, Gilbert dared them to come closer. With the lives of officers and the one other student in the room jeopardized by Gilbert's action, all ten of the officers who had responded to the call opened fire with their mace. An immobile Gilbert was immediately forced to the floor face down, handcuffed behind his back, and held down by the feet of several officers.
Gilbert's teacher, who re-entered the room as the officers fired their weapons, was hit by some of the mace. Beck explained that two officers thought the person who came in the door as they were firing was an accomplice and, in self defense, "took her out too. We hope she realizes it was friendly fire." The other student was treated by the school nurse for mace symptoms although Beck was "not sure the kid had been hit. It might have been mace that floated over to him," the chief said.
Consensus of the reporters present was that It was a "good shoot." That was partly supported by the litter found near the pencil sharpener. Gilbert had apparently been building an arsenal of Number 2s. Numerous freshly sharpened pencils with broken or not quite perfect points were found on the floor beneath the sharpener. The crime lab, where the pencil Gilbert was holding was sent, reported that the tip was much finer than would be necessary to bubble in a circle on a standardized
test. Beck wondered why any 8-year-old would need such a fine point on a Number 2.
Howard Blume, education writer for the L A Times, offered to fellow reporters background material on Gilbert's school. Although the Academy is solely for undisciplined students with social, emotional or behavioral problems, scores on state tests place the Michele Rhee Academy among the top five elementary schools in the state.
Insiders leaked Gilbert's scores, which show that he would have the equivalent of 1600 on the old SAT, with a perfect 800 in each category. Blume passed around Gilbert's answer sheets, noting the numerous erasures and changed answers.
Gilbert's mother said her son was simply overly eager and tended to mark any answer, but on reflection changed those that were wrong to the correct responses. Surprisingly, none of the erasers on the Number 2s in his desk showed signs of wear.
Mrs. Gilbert criticized the chief's repeated reference to her son as Gilbert. "Why does he persist in calling him by his last name instead of his given name?"
When asked for his opinion on the possibility that police had used excessive force on Gilbert, of English ancestry, the head of a citizens' police watchdog committee, Dashawn Washington, had no comment.
In an unrelated announcement, former L. A. police chief William Bratton disclosed that he will accept a post of campus cop at the Rhee Academy.
posted by 2d Amendment at 04:34 a m
Hey, this was a good shoot. These aren't the hick cops in some other towns who whack some poor slob twirling a hose nozzle while sitting on a porch or drop a bum whose going through trash bins looking for bottles to recycle. The kid was armed. Domestic disturbance calls like this one are the most dangerous a cop can undertake.
Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona.