It’s been a common sight around Echo Park in recent weeks. Young men and women – with their arms behind their back – being questioned by LAPD officers in front of the barber shop, gas station and the donut shop parking lot. Officers cite a series of crimes and concerns – from young burglars with backpacks to Echo Park gang members standing their ground – for a more visible and active police presence. While many residents welcome more frequent police patrols, others, such as Reyna Aguilar, complain about the harassment of young Latinos by law enforcement. Aguilar’s 17-year-old son, for example, has been detained, questioned and then released three times this year without being arrested or charged. On Friday night, Aguilar went to the LAPD Northeast station to pick up her son, who had been taken in for breaking curfew and hanging out with others who were drinking alcohol on Preston Avenue near Baxter Street. Aguilar notes that her son was picked up about two hours before curfew. “My son can’t walk down [through] this neighborhood anymore without being harassed by police … other moms are talking about it, too.”
Police, however, say it’s not harassment.
Senior Lead Officer Bobby Hill said that Latinos are not being stopped and questioned simply for being Latinos. “They’re are out there taking care of business and that’s it,” Hill said of his fellow officers, many of whom are also Latino. “You need probable cause and reasonable suspicion” to stop and question citizens.
Echo Park has been relatively quiet as far as violent crime goes. The neighborhood has gone more than a year without a homicide but there has been plenty of property crime and some assaults to worry residents. On May 3, one woman sitting in a car near Echo Park Avenue and Landa Street was injured in a gang related shooting, Hill said. “We are focusing … attention on gang members because of an increase in crime that has taken place.”
But Aguilar, 39, said her son – who was once arrested a few yeas ago for being in the presence of someone tagging a wall – is not a gang member. He does not have a shaved head or wear the clothing favored by many gang members and wannabes. But this year, her husband was driving past the Magic Gas station at Echo Park and Morton avenues to find their son being questioned and searched by police. Officers said they were looking for taggers wearing LA Dodgers caps like the one being worn by the younger Aguilar. In March, Aguilar’s son was waiting for the Echo Park Cycles shop to open when police – responding to a report of a nearby crime – detained and questioned him. “My kid was in the street with handcuffs on,” Aguilar said. In both cases, the 17-year-old was released without being arrested or charged with a crime.
Aguilar said she understands that police are out trying to catch burglars and other criminals. But, after picking up her son last Friday night from the police station, Aguilar said she does not want anymore problems. “I told him that he just can’t be going out,” she said. “It’s getting worse and worse.”