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South LA Leaders Want City To Pay For Damages Caused By Botched Fireworks Detonation

Image of a crowd on a street behind police barricades near the site of a fireworks explosion in a South LA neighborhood.
A crowd gathers at the site of the June 30 firework explosion in South L.A.
(Austin Cross
/
KPCC)
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South L.A. community leaders are calling on the city of Los Angeles to step up and take care of the people affected by the LAPD’s botched June 30 detonation of illegal fireworks in a residential neighborhood.

The South Central Neighborhood Council unanimously passed a resolution on Monday calling on the city to compensate residents for injuries, property damage and emotional distress. It also demands the firing of whomever ordered the detonation — and for their criminal prosecution.

The blast on East 27th Street injured 17 residents and law enforcement officers, damaged cars and houses, and displaced dozens after local utilities shut off power and gas as a precaution.

The resolution slammed the LAPD for its “reckless and potentially life-threatening decision” to detonate some of the fireworks “in the middle of a densely populated neighborhood” in one of California’s poorest communities.

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“We hold firm to the belief that that would not have happened if we lived in an affluent community,” said Neighborhood Council Vice President Ron Gochez, who said he felt the explosion from his home.

'Protocols Were Followed'

Federal agents say the cache consisted of 32,000 pounds of commercial and homemade fireworks. LAPD Chief Michel Moore said officers x-rayed the homemade devices and determined it would be safe to detonate them inside a special truck built for that purpose.

“Protocols were followed and pursued,” but there was a “total catastrophic failure of that containment vehicle,” he said. “We intend to find out why.”

Police said they first evacuated people from the vicinity, but Kumeka Joseph-Stratford said she only got the word by chance. She said she was in the middle of cooking dinner when she happened to take a walk outside and saw LAPD officers and the bomb squad.

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“They told me I had 30 minutes to evacuate,” she said. Joseph-Stratford said she grabbed her purse, and her kids put on their shoes, but just as they started to walk away, “the car blew up right in front of me and my family,” forcing them to run and duck for cover.

Joseph-Stratford said police directed her to a homeless shelter on Skid Row. Rather than go there, she said her family spent the night in their car. Now in a hotel provided by a nonprofit, she says the conditions are unsanitary and unsafe.

More than 50 people from 10 families have been placed in hotel rooms, said Dedee Verdin, a spokesperson for City Councilman Curren Price, who represents the area.

Those Who Fear The Police May Not Seek Help

The ongoing police presence around the blast site is also of concern to the South Central Neighborhood Council, which demanded their immediate withdrawal.

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“People who have trauma or fear of the police, who may need resources, probably may not go to get those resources,” Gochez said, adding that the police presence dissuades people who are in the country illegally from seeking aid.

“Whether the police are there purposely to intimidate anyone or not is irrelevant. People feel intimidated,” he said.

Gochez said the South Central Neighborhood Council plans to offer assistance to residents who don’t feel safe going into the resource center set up by the city’s emergency management department at nearby Trinity Park. About 175 people have received help at the resource center since it opened Sunday, Verdin said.

The Neighborhood Council’s resolution also called on the city council to change city policy so explosives “are never intentionally detonated in residential communities.”

Councilman Price told LAist he shares the Neighborhood Council’s concerns, and agrees that the community deserves answers — although he said he doesn’t agree with its demand that the LAPD withdraw.

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'We Want To Hold The Police And Anybody Else Responsible'

“We want to hold the police and anybody else responsible,” he said. “We want to know what happened to make sure it doesn't happen again.”

Price is in favor of having the city attorney’s office work with the LAPD to compensate residents for physical harm and property damage, his spokesperson Verdin said. As far as compensation for emotional trauma, she said Price’s office is directing residents to the resource center for mental health services.

SoCal Gas said the fire department turned off 24 meters after the explosion, and that the utility has since restored service to one commercial customer. It said in an email that it’s waiting for clearance from the city and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — which is investigating the blast — before turning on the remaining 23.

Verdin said SoCal Gas and DWP completed a site assessment Wednesday and are awaiting signoff from the department of Building and Safety before restoring everyone's gas and power.

Arturo Ceja III, 26, was arrested by Los Angeles police last week on suspicion of reckless or malicious possession of a destructive device and was released a day later on $500,000 bail. State charges have not been filed against Ceja, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.

He was subsequently arrested by federal agents and charged by the U.S. Department of Justice with transporting illegal fireworks that caused the explosion. He was granted bond on Tuesday. The U.S. Attorney’s office says he will be arraigned on Aug. 2.