Jesse James Romero was 14-years-old and would have turned fifteen this month.
Instead, he was fatally shot by a member of Los Angeles Police Department on Tuesday of last week. The death of the Boyle Heights teenager has drawn an unusual amount of attention from local community members who want more answers than they say they are being given by LAPD officials.
Romero was a student at Mendez High School and a smart kid who applied himself to school work, according to friends, but he also skated the edge of gangs, they said, and had been harassed by members of other so-called “enemy” gangs. Yet he was enrolled in a gang intervention program at Soledad Enrichment Center (SEA) where he was reportedly doing well.
The shooting occurred after officers assigned to the gang detail from the Hollenbeck Division of the LAPD got a complaint at about 5:35 p.m. on Tuesday, about some possible tagging in progress near Chicago Street and Cesar Chavez Avenue, a few blocks away from where the Hollenbeck police station is located on 1st Street in Boyle Heights. When the officers rolled up on the two teenagers at the location, one of the boys was detained. But the other one ran, and officers gave chase.
The boy who ran was Jesse Romero.
What happened after he ran from the police is, at present, open to dispute.
The LAPD says that detectives spoke to a witness who saw Romero fire a handgun in the direction of the pursuing officers. And then, according to the witness, one of the officers, who were both in full uniform, fired back killing him.
But a second witness, who also said she saw the sequence of events, told Los Angeles Times reporters that she was “in a car stopped at a traffic light at Cesar Chavez and Breed Street,” where the shooting took place, when she saw someone running along Cesar Chavez Avenue, from Chicago Street. As the young runner turned onto Breed, the witness told the LA Times, he pulled a handgun from his waistband and threw it toward a metal fence. The gun hit the fence and fell onto the ground, at which point she heard the thing fire. Then she heard two more gunshots and saw the teenage runner fall to the ground.
“HE WAS JUST TRYING TO GET AWAY”
WitnessLA spoke to a third witness, who declined to allow his name to be used, but who heard the first shot and a few seconds later saw Romero running south on Breed St. then saw the officers speeding behind him having turned the corner from Cesar Chavez to Breed. The witness described seeing one officer extend his arm and shoot the running teenager twice in the back. Then the boy fell.
The angle was such that witness said he did not see whether or not Romero had a gun in his hands nor did he see him throw it.
“When I saw him, he was just trying to get away,” said the witness. “And the officer shot him.”
At a press conference on Wednesday, LAPD Deputy Chief Robert Arcos, explained to reporters that officers heard a gunshot as they turned the corner from Cesar Chavez to Breed and one officer fired at Romero and hit him. Arcos also reported that police had recovered a handgun near Romero’s body. The LAPD provided a photo of the handgun—a revolver*—that appears to be notably old and poorly maintained. According to those familiar with such guns, it could be a 1940’s era .38 or .22. (The Times showed the photo to a couple of experts who said this particular kind of revolver, if not well-maintained, could very well fire accidently if it was dropped or tossed on to a hard surface. )
A video taken by a bystander appeared on Democracy Now and shows officers handcuffing the limp body of Jesse Romero, next to a metal fence, with the gun lying on the other side of the fence from his body.
“LET THE CHIPS FALL”
So what is true?
LAPD officials have told reporters and others that the body cam videos from the cameras worn by the officers involved are intact and are being examined.
And the rusty gun found near to Romero is being tested for DNA and fingerprints.
The police have not mentioned testing Romero’s hands for gun shot residue, but one assumes that such a test has been done.
A retired LA County Sheriff’s department supervisor with experience in such things assured us that gun shot residue test can be done very quickly, “even at the scene,” if need be, he said. So presumably the police know if Jesse Romero fired that gun or not, even without the body cam videos.
But the videos are expected to be the true tie breaker.
Civil Rights lawyer Jorge Gonzalez, who is one of the attorneys representing Romero’s mother, held a press conference on Friday calling for the release of the videos.
“Be transparent! Let us see the videos now, and then let the chips fall,” Gonzalez said to us over the weekend regarding what he wants from the LAPD. “If the videos show that Jesse shot at police, and had that gun when he was shot, then we’ll withdraw our lawsuit.
“But,” Gonzalez continued, “if Jesse threw the gun, like the other witness says he did, “and when the gun hit the ground it went off,—“meaning, he didn’t have the gun when he was shot….well, that’s a whole different story.”
Gonzalez was also critical of the LAPD for telling reporters about the witness’s version of events that best matched the police narrative, while dragging their feet on producing hard evidence that would tip the scales.
In the meantime, community members held a vigil on Wednesday night calling for “justice” for Romero, and two other young Boyle Heights men shot this year by police, and on Saturday a several dozen demonstrated during the day in front of the Hollenbeck police station.
On Friday night, at Pasadena’s Levitt Pavilion, the musical group Quezal, dedicated their last song of the night to Jesse Romero.
Yet, not all of the talk in the community has been focused on the actions of the police. On Friday, August 12, the group “Building Healthy Communities held a press conference at the Ross Valencia Community Park at the corner of Chicago and 1st Streets to talk about the need for an increase in investment in Boyle Heights kids…like Jesse. Youth activists said that the city of LA spends $653 per resident on police and $43 per youth, while there are approximately 800,000 youth between the ages of 10 and 24 in the Boyle Heights area alone.
And then on Sunday at Dolores Mission Church, community women held a food sale after each mass to raise money for Jesse Romero’s mother to help pay for the funeral service for her son. Other community members have donated through GoFundMe
EDITOR’S NOTE: The LA Times has been doing excellent ongoing coverage of Jesse Romero’s death and its aftermath, so be sure to check out their stories.
CORRECTION: 8-16-2016: We originally and erroneously wrote “pistol” when describing the gun. It’s a revolver. Also, experts tell us it could be a .22 caliber.