Anatomy of a Los Angeles Police Shooting: A Black Teenager, a Missing Gun, Protests, Grief

Left, Anthony Weber’s memorial at the apartment complex where he was killed by the police. Right, a flower memorial for Anthony’s funeral.

LOS ANGELES — John Weber was rummaging through old boxes the other day, looking for memories, when he found a bunch of old baseball and flag football trophies. He has kept other things, too, like a neatly pressed R.O.T.C. uniform, a reminder that he once hoped to steer his son, Anthony, to the Army and away from the streets.

“It’s all I’ve got left,” he said.

On Super Bowl Sunday, after rooting for the Patriots against the Eagles, Anthony Weber left a friend’s apartment to go for dinner with his girlfriend at The Kickin’ Crab, her favorite restaurant.

Around the same time, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department received a 911 call. A black man with a gun was threatening a motorist.

Soon, Anthony — a mixed race 16-year-old, was dead in a darkened courtyard of a run-down apartment complex, with no gun anywhere around.

Nearly two months later, with questions still unanswered, the spot is a makeshift memorial of candles, balloons, flowers, photographs, and placards from rallies. “Jail killer cops!” reads one. “No gun = no alibi = murder,” reads another.

Long before police shootings and protests in Ferguson, Mo., or Sacramento focused America’s attention on how the police treat black men, Los Angeles was a byword for police brutality and racism. Years of effort after the 1991 beating of Rodney King, the riots that followed and, later, the Rampart police corruption scandal, have succeeded in changing the culture of policing in the city to a great extent. There is less overt racism, many people in Los Angeles say, and police forces have been reshaped to better reflect the city’s diversity.

Yet to Anthony Weber’s family, to the Black Lives Matter activists drawn to the case, and to many residents of South Los Angeles, an area still rife with crime and poverty, his death and its aftermath are signs of how much more needs to change on their streets, and how the police can be too quick to use deadly force against black men.

“We are light-years from where we were, and light-years from where we need to be,” said Connie Rice, a civil rights lawyer who began suing the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1990s, and lately has worked with the department on new approaches to policing.

The neighborhood is not the South Los Angeles of the 1980s and 1990s, when gang wars and the crack epidemic were devastating many lives. Crime has fallen drastically, as it has in many big cities across America. There were more than 1,000 murders in a single year in the city of Los Angeles in the 1990s, but the rate today is fewer than 300 a year.

Even so, gangs are still ubiquitous, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has said that Anthony was involved with them, an allegation that has outraged activists.

“First they kill our bodies, then they kill our characters,” said Melina Abdullah, a professor at California State University, Los Angeles, and a Black Lives Matter organizer.

Anthony’s father said, “In South Central, everyone is associated with gangs — it’s just a part of being able to walk to school.” He said Anthony “associated” with neighborhood gang members but was “not a criminal gang member.”

By Mr. Weber’s own account, Anthony struggled. But his past, Mr. Weber said, was irrelevant to his killing.

Anthony’s mother, Demetra Johnson, said that her son “smoked and had a baby at 16,” but she maintained that “he was not a thug or killer, like they are trying to portray.”

She said she had always counseled her son, whom everyone called A.J., that on the streets, he would be regarded with suspicion by the police, especially if he was hanging out with a group of friends.

The sheriff’s department said that the deputies involved in the case believed Anthony had a gun, and that he had refused to obey an order to halt and had run away. When the deputies chased him, according to the department’s statement, Anthony “turned toward the deputies, and that was when a deputy-involved shooting occurred.”

No gun was found at the scene. The department said it must have been lost in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, possibly taken by a bystander.

“As you can imagine, until you are at one of these scenes, you don’t have an appreciation for just how chaotic they get, how dangerous potentially,” Sheriff Jim McDonnell toldKPCC, a public radio station, about the deputies’ failure to find a gun. “You don’t know which additional threats are in the environment, either,” the sheriff said.

But witnesses and the family’s lawyer, Gregory A. Yates, say the deputies secured the scene immediately, and that no one else had any chance to get close and grab a dropped gun.

Activists and members of Anthony Weber’s family say they have no doubt where things will end up: exoneration for the deputies, the details fading from public memory, and eventually, perhaps after years, a quiet payout to the family from the county.

In Los Angeles, law enforcement officers are rarely held criminally accountable for shootings. The last time a police officer in the city faced criminal charges for a shooting while on duty was in 2000; the shooting was not fatal and the officer pleaded no contest.

The 2014 shooting of Ezell Ford, an unarmed black man, by the Los Angeles Police Department, galvanized the local chapter of Black Lives Matter, but the officers were not charged. Mr. Ford’s family sued the city and received a $1.5 million settlement last year.

An officer involved in another controversial police shooting was cleared this month. The district attorney’s office declined to bring charges against the officer for killing an unarmed homeless man in the Venice neighborhood, even though the police department’s own investigation determined that the shooting was not justified and recommended criminal charges. The city reached a $4 million settlement with the victim’s family. Both the officer and victim were black.

The Venice case is emblematic of the broader frustrations of the Black Lives Matter movement over a lack of progress, despite national attention to the problem. “We’re absolutely frustrated,” Ms. Abdullah said. “I’m in a state of rage.”

Fatal shootings by police officers in the United States have held steady at roughly 1,000 a year over the last three years, according to a tally kept by The Washington Post. But there is no standardized federal database to track police shootings, despite repeated calls after the shooting in Ferguson to create such a system.

The latest incident to stir racial tensions and protests happened in Sacramento, where police officers shot and killed a young black man in his backyard who they thought was waving a gun. It turned out to be a cellphone.

Activists in Los Angeles say police shootings are still distressingly numerous. Last year, officers were involved in 78 shootings in Los Angeles County, down slightly from previous years, according to the Los Angeles district attorney. In New York, by comparison, there were 23 police shootings last year, the lowest total on record.

According to an investigation by KPCC, the public radio station, which pieced together data from a variety of sources, the number of shootings by law enforcement officers in Los Angeles County has remained roughly stable for the last 18 years. In the period from 2010 to 2014, the station found, 24 percent of the fatalities in those shootings were black, though black residents make up just 8 percent of the population.

Changes in police policy have built up “just enough fabric of trust to weather the shooting of a resident without a riot,” Ms. Rice said.

Anthony Weber’s death may not fit neatly into the familiar narrative of racially tinged police violence — of a white cop shooting a black man — but his case does fit the narrative of modern Los Angeles. Areas like South Los Angeles that were once predominantly African-American — and were the epicenter of uprisings against police abuses in 1965 and 1992 — have become increasingly Latino, and increasingly diverse. Anthony had a white father, a black mother and a Latino girlfriend.

Law enforcement in Los Angeles has also become more diverse: White males are now in the minority in both the police and the sheriff’s department, and Latino and black officers are represented on the force in proportions roughly mirroring the population at large.

But greater diversity has not ended longstanding police biases against black men, according to the shooting data as well as the perceptions of activists. “They shot him because he’s black!” was chanted by protesters at the first rally after Anthony Weber was killed.

“The last cop who put a boot in Rodney King’s face was black,” said Steven A. Lerman, a lawyer who represented Mr. King. “It doesn’t seem to be white versus black, but blue versus take-your-pick.”

The sheriff’s department has not disclosed the race or identity of the deputy who shot Anthony.

Sitting in the Weber family’s living room on a recent afternoon, surrounded by photographs of Anthony, were four generations of women. Mattie Johnson, Anthony’s grandmother, moved to Los Angeles in 1964 — a year before the Watts riots — hoping to escape the cruelties of segregation and racism in Birmingham, Ala. She recalled Ku Klux Klan marches and a church bombing there that killed four young black girls.

The women all considered Anthony’s death to be of a piece with the long arc of America’s history of racism.

If things had been different, Anthony Weber might have been the one behind the pulpit at the funeral the other day in South Los Angeles. He loved the music of the church, and he sure loved the spotlight.

“He was just a natural charmer,” said his mother, Demetra. “He wanted attention. Which could make him difficult, too. Trust me, I gave him attention. But he always wanted more.”

At his funeral, a former teacher called him her “wonder boy,” who worked hard to reach age 16. His sister spoke about the unfairness that “he never got the chance to be a man.”

Mixed with the grief and the music of R. Kelly and the O’Jays at the service, there were hints of anger, too.

“We’re having trouble finding out what happened to him,” his father said. “They’re not being transparent.”

Rodney Hilson, speaking from long experience as a pastor in South Los Angeles, said simply, “I’m tired of this.”

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