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Street Justice

WITH A HEARSE PARKED IN THE BACKGROUND, celebrity attorney Debra Opri talked about the death of Tyrone Danell Brooks. A small group of reporters listened outside Bethel AME Church in South Los Angeles as Opri — flanked by Brooks’ grandmother, Ethel Brooks, his girlfriend, Christina Smith, and the couple’s 18-month-old son — accused the San Bernardino police of recklessly killing the 19-year-old African-American. Other family members and friends glanced over but kept walking into the 1,500-seat church.

The press conference was an unusual start to a funeral.

“He was shot like an animal,” said Opri, who made a name for herself when she helped R&B legend James Brown beat a sexual-harassment rap in 2002. “The police acted like executioners. We will take action. We will bring those murderers to justice. We are filing suit against negligent parties and, believe me, there are many.”

Opri alleges that witnesses will say that Brooks had surrendered to police and was on his knees when they shot him in the back and head. Authorities dispute her account.

This was the same church where eulogies were heard last month for Stanley “Tookie” Williams, who was executed at San Quentin. Brooks’ service had far less fanfare than the former Crips street-gang member’s, but equal levels of anger, grief and calls for punishment.

“The people called on the governor to grant him clemency — to show mercy,” said the Rev. Gregory Tatum. “He declined to respond. Our brother Tyrone was executed by the San Bernardino police. We couldn’t get the governor to speak about Tookie. He is going to speak about this one. We are tired of this. Our blood no more.”

Tatum called the shooting an “illegal execution” and questioned how police could consider it justified.

About 100 family members and friends attended the former Compton native’s hourlong funeral and heard impassioned pleas for a deeper understanding of problems African-American men have with police. Mourners wore T-shirts that read: “In Loving Memory of Tyrone Brooks” and “Compton’s Finest.” According to relatives, Brooks was going to adult school to become a correctional officer. “He was young,” said family friend Marc Spitz. “He was scared. A young man has lost his life due to the hands of police again. It was an unnecessary death. He just had a child. He hadn’t even started his life yet. You move out of Compton to escape the violence. You go to a suburb to escape it and then to lose your son at the hand of someone who was supposed to protect him. It shouldn’t be swept under the carpet.”

San Bernardino police offered a far different take on the January 8 shooting, which came at the end of a 10-mile pursuit. The chase began at 2:10 a.m. in a residential neighborhood and ended in a garbage-strewn alley in Rialto. Brooks was one of two passengers in a silver Dodge Neon driven by 18-year-old Coleman Watson. Officers, who were responding to an unrelated call, heard gunshots and tried to stop the car.

Watson took off and finally stopped in the 200 block of Shamrock Street in Rialto. Brooks jumped out of the car and ran. He was shot several times in his upper body and head and died on the street.

Two guns were found at the scene, said San Bernardino interim police Chief Michael Billdt, but he would not say exactly how far the weapons were from Brooks’ body. He also refused to provide the names of the two police officers at the scene; they remain on duty.

On January 10, the driver, Watson, was charged with discharging a firearm with gross negligence, evading an officer, having a concealed firearm in a vehicle, carrying a loaded firearm in a vehicle, permitting a loaded firearm in a vehicle, and being armed with a firearm. A report on Watson’s arrest provided slightly more insight into what happened that night. According to San Bernardino Deputy District Attorney Michael O’Connell, a 17-year-old passenger in the car told investigating officers that both Brooks and Watson were carrying handguns.

“The witness said both guys .?.?. were shooting out of the window when the cops pulled up,” he said. “They tried to pass the guns to him but he refused to take them.” O’Connell said that one of the guns was found near Watson and the car. “He got out of the car. When the cops started firing he hit the ground.”

Authorities refuse to provide several crucial details, including how many times Brooks was struck by gunfire, whether Brooks was firing at officers when he was shot, and how far any weapons were from his body.

The shooting was referred to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department at the request of the Rialto Police Department, and results of the investigation will be sent to the District Attorney’s Office for review. (Brooks’ death is San Bernardino’s second officer-involved shooting in just over a month. In early December, officers fatally shot 27-year-old Christopher Vargas in the driveway of a duplex.)

AT THE END OF THE SERVICE, with the brown, wooden casket open, friends and family members slowly lined up to the song “I Believe I Can Fly” for one last look at Brooks before he was to be buried next to his great-grandmother at the Angeles-Abbey Memorial Park in Compton. White flowers and a blue ribbon that read “Best Friends Forever” lay next to the casket.

“The life of an African-American is still cheap,” said Tatum. “We are tired of this. This is a call to arms after today. We will arm ourselves with laptops, cell phones and video cameras. Get your cell phones ready.”