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Police Commission Says LAPD Officers Justified In Separate Shootings Of Two Teens

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The Los Angeles Police Commission, a panel of civilians appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti to oversee policy within the LAPD, ruled on Tuesday that LAPD officers were justified in the separate fatal shootings of 14-year-old Jesse Romero and 18-year-old Kenney Watkins, reports ABC7.

In a 3-1 vote, the commission said that officers were acting within policy in the shooting of Romero—commissioner Cynthia McClain-Hill gave the lone dissenting vote. The board voted unanimously to fault one officer's conduct leading up to the shooting. The commission also voted unanimously to say that officers were justified in the shooting of Watkins.

Romero's shooting occurred on August 9 in Boyle Heights. LAPD Gang Enforcement Detail officers encountered Romero at the corner of Chicago Street and Cesar Chavez Avenue. According to a report submitted to the commission by Police Chief Charlie Beck, officers spotted Romero and a group of individuals tagging graffiti on an apartment complex, reports the L.A. Times. Two officers approached the group, which promptly dispersed. The officers chased after Romero into Breed Street.

The LAPD claims that, when the officers encounter Romero again, they found him crouched down with an arm extended towards them. LAPD Officer Eden Medina fired two shots at Romero, who was fatally struck.

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Accounts of the moments preceding the shooting are in dispute. The officers told investigators that they heard a gunshot as they turned onto Breed. One witness told the Times in an earlier article that she saw Romero pull out a handgun and toss it towards a fence, and that the gun went off after it landed on the ground. This contradicts an account from the LAPD, who'd previously said that one witness claimed that Romero fired his gun at the officers. Investigators later discovered the gun behind a fence, which critics of the shooting say challenges the LAPD's account.

As reported at NBC 4, it was later discovered that, 12 days before Romero's incident, Medina had fatally shot Omar Gonzalez, who was said to have gotten into a confrontation with police officers after a car chase. Community activists argued that Medina should not have been back on the force so soon after the shooting. According to LAPD policy, an officer engaged in a shooting requires the approval of the police chief to return to the field.

Watkins was shot and killed by officers a week after Romero's death. On August 16, LAPD officer Evan Urias pulled over a sedan on Century Boulevard in South L.A. Watkins reportedly got out of the car and fled the scene. Urias gave chase while still on his motorcycle. Urias later told investigators that Watkins had his hands around the waist of his pants, and that he later produced a gun in each hand. The officer said he shot at Watkins after the suspect had turned towards him.

"It makes me angry and disgusted that it continues," Centro CSO activist Carlos Montes, who's based in Boyle Heights, told LAist. Montes and other community groups had taken to the commission meeting on Tuesday. "I see this is as systemic institutional racism, based on a racist society. Some say that that can't be the case, as a lot of the LAPD are Latino or Chicano now. But that's not the issue; the issue is that the LAPD still sees Latinos and Chicanos as second-class citizens. It's part of the institutional problem within the LAPD."

"You are continuing to allow the murdering of our children," Black Lives Matter activist Melina Abdullah told the commission at Tuesday's meeting, according to ABC 7. "Do you not see this? Do you not see that Jesse Romero is 14 years old?"

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The Los Angeles Police Protective League, a police union, said in a statement that it agreed with the commission's ruling. "In both of these cases, the Police Commission analyzed the evidence in front of t hem and ruled correctly on the use of force," said the statement. "We sympathize with the grieving families, however, both suspects made horrible decisions, with tragic outcomes, when they chose to use guns to threaten the lives of police officers.”

As noted by KPCC, the L.A. District Attorney's Office has not determined if the officers involved in the shootings of Romero and Watkins were justified—it's rare for the D.A. to file charges against officers involved in a shooting.

Montes told LAist that Centro CSO and other community groups will continue to respond to the enduring instances of police shootings. "We're going to demand a meeting with the mayor. And we're going to ask other groups statewide to pool our data—from Fresno, from San Jose," said Montes, adding that his group plans on protesting outside California Attorney General Xavier Becerra's office early next year. "We're still doing protests, but now we will also go into the system."

Montes also pointed to the dissenting vote cast by McClain-Hill, which he says is a "rarity."

"I see a little bit of a light—that one of the commissioners voted against it," said Montes.