The Crisis Mayor

The shooting death of a young child is heartbreaking and horrific, of course, but in the end it also is a political problem. As with the shooting death of 13-year-old Devin Brown earlier this year, and the flashlight beating of Stanley Miller a year ago, the killing of Susie Lopez in the July 10 shootout between her father and Los Angeles police officers poses a political test for Police Chief William Bratton, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and pretty much everyone else in the city. As with most such tests, though, it could be months, or years, before anyone knows who passed and who failed.

The spotlight is on Villaraigosa, as the new kid on the block. Mayor less than two weeks, he has had to deal in quick succession with worry here over the London terror bombing and now the aftermath of the deadly Watts gun battle that police say began when they found Raul Peña outside his used-car dealership, holding a gun and then shooting at officers.

Police say Peña went inside his dealership and came out holding his daughter and again firing at officers. After two hours of negotiations, punctuated by more shooting, both Peña and his little girl were dead, and one officer was shot in the shoulder.

There is very little a mayor can say in such a situation that will not inflame passions on one side or another. During the first 72 hours, when asked about the shootings, Villaraigosa wisely made several versions of the same statement: It’s tragic whenever an innocent child is killed. It’s tragic whenever an officer is shot in the line of duty. The investigation will be comprehensive.

On Wednesday, at a City Hall press conference, Villaraigosa made his most extensive comments. "My focus today, my focus on Sunday night has been to be a calming force." He told of his actions the night of the shooting, how he went to the hospital and how he helped see to it that Peña’s 16-year-old stepdaughter received medical care. He said community meetings would be held to discuss the incident and assure community members that the investigation would be exhaustive. "We come together during celebrations, and just the other day we were celebrating my inauguation," he said. "We also need to come together in times like these."

As the days pass and as resentments fester, it may become tempting for a mayor to lean one way or the other. Villaraigosa is staking out ground in the center. If at some point, he firmly comes down on one side or the other, he will run the risk of alienating a powerful constituency, whether it be the police or the Latino community.

Look what happened to Jim Hahn, who mostly made all the right moves as mayor during earlier police controversies. Like Villaraigosa, Hahn left most of the talking to Bratton. As his tenure grew more troubled, though, and police were taped chasing and beating suspected car thief Stanley Miller with a flashlight, Hahn couldn’t stop himself from saying that it looked like one officer used excessive force.

It was not an outrageous statement. It did look like one officer used excessive force, and although the district attorney declined to bring charges, there is an administrative hearing pending. But the beating, and the comment, undercut confidence in what once were thought to be among Hahn’s strong points — rapport with African-Americans and ability to handle the LAPD.

By the time officers shot and killed 13-year-old Devin Brown as he drove a car toward them in the early-morning darkness in February, it was too late for Hahn. With the mayoral primary approaching, there was nothing he could say, or not say, to make him look more mayoral through such a sensitive period.

Villaraigosa would surely not have chosen to deal with the killing of Susie Lopez so early in his tenure, but he had no choice, and the timing of the tragedy actually serves him well. He is still in the early days of his honeymoon with the city and, so far, he has made all the right moves: visiting the scene; visiting the wounded officer and his family; and visiting with the neighbors and family of Susie.

That said, most of the political tests will go on out of public view. The most crucial will be the relationship between the mayor and Bratton, who was given wide latitude by Hahn once the chief learned to tone down his rhetoric. There is also the still-young relationship between the mayor and the LAPD rank and file. And the relationship between Bratton and the cops, who are pretty skeptical of the new flashlights issued in the wake of the Miller beating and the new no-shoot policy toward moving cars adopted after the Brown shooting.

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