BACK ON THE MEAN STREETS

It started as a straight drunk-driving stop. LAPD Officer Steve Garcia and his partner were patrolling South Los Angeles at 3:49 last Sunday morning when they spotted a maroon 1990 Toyota driving erratically. At the wheel was Devin Brown, joyriding with a friend in what police later determined was a stolen car. Siren blaring, the cops chased Brown for three miles before he lost control and slammed the Toyota into a fence. Brown's buddy ran. Officer Garcia left his car, too. Then Brown suddenly backed the Toyota into the side of the patrol car. In reaction, the nine-year veteran pumped ten quick shots at the car, killing Brown. Only later did cops learn that Devin Brown, an African-American, was unarmed, an eighth grader--and only 13.

Fourteen years after the videotaped beating of Rodney King by four white L.A. cops, it seemed to many in the black community that nothing had changed in the LAPD. The corner of 83rd Street and Western Avenue where Brown died quickly became both a memorial and a protest zone. Community activists blamed racism. "There seems to be a complete disregard for black life," said Danny Bakewell, head of the Brotherhood Crusade. The incident was the severest test yet for Chief William Bratton, the former New York police commissioner who came to L.A. in 2002 to reform a department that had yet to fully implement changes proposed after the 1992 riots. He's made headway in improving community relations and cutting crime. Los Angeles's black leadership has given Bratton good marks--until now.

Bratton built a reservoir of good will by encouraging cops to suppress even small-scale crime aggressively and by transferring more desk jockeys to the street. Crime, which had been falling under his predecessors, has continued to drop under Bratton. And he's added a new unit to investigate cop shootings. "I see enormous improvement" in the internal self-policing, says Connie Rice, a lawyer who represents clients in civil-rights suits against the LAPD. But problems remain. Some worry that cops are still too quick to use deadly force. And there still aren't enough of them; last week Bratton lost a city-council vote on a proposal to help fund an additional 1,260 new officers.

Frustration with other recent incidents in the African-American community made the reaction to Brown's death more heated. Just four days before the shooting, the district attorney announced he would not prosecute an LAPD cop caught on tape beating suspected car thief Stanley Miller 11 times with a flashlight last June. Last month a local jury awarded two white cops from neighboring Inglewood $2.4 million in a discrimination suit because they were wrongfully terminated following the videotaped 2002 beating of Donovan Jackson, 16. They were cleared of criminal wrongdoing in the case, too. "This city is one incident away from a riot," says Rice.

Fault in the Brown incident wasn't entirely clear-cut. Officer Garcia shot Brown after the boy apparently backed the car directly into the side of the police cruiser; Garcia was crouched behind the door. LAPD policy allows officers to shoot into moving cars, but only if the vehicle threatens the life of a cop or bystander. This week Bratton will fine-tune new rules to allow cops to shoot at moving cars only when the occupants are threatening officers or others with weapons. Garcia told the Los Angeles Times, "It's the last thing in the world that I wanted to happen." And many citizens, black and white, wondered why the cops were shouldering all the blame for an incident that started because a 13-year-old was driving illegally, in a stolen car, at 4 in the morning. "We see young, innocent kids killed by gangbangers, and we don't see [this much] outrage," says white City Councilman Dennis Zine.

The black community will watch closely to see whether Garcia is punished or prosecuted. Garcia and his partner are confined to desk duty during the probe. In a TV interview, Bratton said that "there's a high fear issue for the officers" and that investigators are probing whether "a panic issue" accounted for Garcia's shooting of Brown. To keep panic--and anger--from spreading, Bratton's gone on TV and met twice with blacks leaders to show that his department--and its chief--are on the case.