Westlake Shooting

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

Paul Conrad, the great political cartoonist, skewered the powerful in the LA Times for three decades. He died a week ago at the age of 86.

His cartoons had a way of cutting through the haze on controversial issues and laying bare the truth, which you could then agree with, or get angry about – as many did.

If Conrad were still around to comment on the latest Los Angeles police shooting, I suspect he'd avoid depicting a clash of good and evil.

He'd sense something more nuanced was going on, and I think the emotion he'd reach for in this case would be sadness.

The dead man is a 37-year-old day laborer from Guatemala who was part of the large immigrant society that swirls around MacArthur Park, in the Westlake district that once was LA's elite address.

By all accounts Manuel Jamines had been drinking on the day he died. Possibly a lot.

By most accounts, including that of the LAPD, he was menacing people with a knife on the sidewalk at 6th and Union.

Someone on the street hailed three officers from the Rampart station who were patrolling on bikes. They dismounted to size up the situation, and ordered Jamines in English and Spanish to drop the knife.

What happened next is, of course, not universally agreed on.

It's become the flash point for angry street protests by residents of the area, calls for calm by the chief of police and the mayor, and the incendiary rhetoric we've come to expect of the police union.

This time there's no clear video or audio to clarify to everyone's satisfaction what did happen.

The police say that Jamines held on to his knife, and posed an immediate danger. Multiple shots to the head killed him on the spot.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa quickly endorsed the LAPD view, saying at a press conference that he “guaranteed that the investigation would show that the officers who stopped were heroes who acted bravely.”

Which may well turn out to be true. But in the community that knew Jamines, and the thousands of others like him, the word of the mayor and the police department isn't being accepted as gospel.

They're having a hard time seeing how a drunken day laborer, even with a knife, could only be stopped with bullets. When there were three armed cops.

At least two people who say they were have disputed that the man was holding a knife when he was shot. Others say he was, and the police have produced a knife as evidence.

Who knows how conclusive either version will turn out to be. If you just watched a man be killed, would your memory be influenced by adrenaline, or anger? Mine might be. Eyewitness accounts can be very good, or very bad.

I'm satisfied to wait for an unemotional report on what did happen. Though I wonder who will credibly give it since the department and the mayor already reached their conclusions.

Maybe most in the Westlake community are being patient. But when a few hundred protesters take to the streets and light fires, it's a sign that your credibility isn't what it should be.

I think Conrad would see this all as a social tragedy. Go to KCRW.com/LAObserved and tell me what you think.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.