LA TIMES OP-ED - Another Killing in Watts

A frustrated detective tweets a photo of a dead body. For good reason.

October 21, 2011

"Dead in a Zip Code that doesn't matter." — A homicide detective in "The Wire."

Knuckles' wife said it was wrong.

"The detective didn't show respect when he put that picture on Twitter," Maria Rios told me. A cellphone photograph of her just-slain husband covered with a blanket on a Watts street was posted last week on the social media site by a veteran Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective.

It wasn't just Rios who was upset. The photo drew the ire of a local blogger who called it callous, and a story on the LA Weekly blog "The Informer" kept the controversy going, launching follow-ups in newspapers and their blogs as far away as London (the Daily Mail), New York (the Daily News) and Washington (the Post).

Oscar "Knuckles" Arevalo, 32, was killed Oct. 11 as he was standing next to a woman known as the "Tamale Lady" on the southwest corner of 106th Street and Wilmington Avenue in the unruly heart of Watts.

When Sal LaBarbera, supervisor of the criminal gang homicide unit in the LAPD's South Bureau, which covers Watts, arrived on the scene, he took a picture of Arevalo's body covered with a white and red blanket and later posted it on his Twitter account (@LA Murder Cop) with the tag "Guess where I'm at??? It never ends." And the hoopla began.

LaBarbera isn't apologizing. On Sunday, one of his Twitter followers asked: "Did you ever think 1 pic would get such attention?" He replied: "I would have done [it] sooner. Stop the violence." He told me he regretted that posting the photo had become the issue: "The real issue is what is happening in Watts, in our city."

And that's the point. Frustration played a major role in LaBarbera's decision. With all due respect to Rios — who has five children with Arevalo and is brokenhearted — sometimes we need to see what's hard to look at.

Within several blocks of where Knuckles (he got his nickname from his boyhood love of fist-fighting, his wife said with a laugh) died, there have been 19 other homicides this year. How much TV airtime and how many newspaper column inches have been written about those killings? Other than a full-page LA Weekly piece in June about a double on Grape Street, the only coverage has been the posts on The Times' homicide blog.

Can you imagine the response to nearly 20 homicides this year in Hancock Park or Beverly Hills? Delta Force maybe?

It's always been this way. I first met LaBarbera in the mid-1990s, when I covered a triple homicide off Hoover Street in South-Central. I wrote about 25 inches; it was published as a brief, 2 inches tops. I called LaBarbera and told him. I don't remember his exact words, but he was disappointed then, so how would he feel now, after another decade and a half of largely unheralded murders.

Some Angelenos seem to be under the twisted impression that a killing in Watts does not matter as much as one in a more tranquil area. South L.A. communities are used to violence, right? It's not news. But that familiarity with tragedy only makes it all the more tragic.

"People, white people, think that this is normal, that murders are supposed to happen here in Watts," said Elvonzo "Red Mann" Cromwell at Monday's Watts Gang Task Force meeting. Cromwell, who knew Arevalo, grew up in Jordan Downs. "But it's not supposed to happen here the same as it's not supposed to happen anywhere."

But, it does happen here with alarming frequency, which is the prime reason LaBarbera posted the photo. Watts, just one 2.1-square-mile community in the LAPD's Southeast Division, accounted for four times the homicides in the entire 17.2-square-mile Hollywood Division and nine times the number in the even larger West Los Angeles Division as of Oct. 1. And that was before Arevalo was killed.

The families of the multiple homicide victims in Arevalo's neighborhood aren't grieving any less than families in Hollywood and West L.A. Heartbroken is heartbroken on Grape Street in Watts, same as it is on Mapleton Drive in Holmby Hills.

As a fictional LAPD homicide detective, Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, says, "Everybody counts or nobody counts."

Was it in good taste to post the photo of Knuckles? Certainly not to Maria Rios. But it needed to be done, and it would be a crying shame not to know why it was done. The fuss should not be about LaBarbera's posting the picture; it should be about what's been lost in the ruckus — the killing of Knuckles.

Michael Krikorian, a former Times reporter, does research for the Watts Labor Community Action Committee.