Juan Méndez recalled the horrible Sunday morning last February, when he was called at the restaurant where he works and told that his teenage son had been killed in an officer involved shooting the night before. Police say 16-year-old José Méndez was in a stolen vehicle and armed with a sawed-off shotgun when he was shot by LAPD officers on Feb. 6.

“I have not seen the car, I have not seen the gun,” cried out the elder Méndez, saying that his family has yet to receive a full explanation of the circumstances of the shooting, which is still under investigation.

Méndez was one of several survivors of officer involved shootings that spoke Wednesday night at a vigil for 14-year-old Jesse Romero, who was shot and killed by LAPD officers on Tuesday after a brief chase down César Chávez Avenue and onto Breed Street. Officers were reportedly responding to a call of two teens involved in gang-related vandalism and detained one of the boys while Romero gave chase. Police say the officers heard a gunshot before they fired at Romero, who died at the scene.  A gun was recovered at the scene, police say.

Romero –who would have turned 15 on August 24 and was a student at Méndez High School– was the fifth fatal victim of an officer involved shooting in Boyle Heights this year.

At the site of Romero’s shooting, a makeshift altar was built around a utility pole where pictures and posters were pasted up. On Wednesday evening, the dim lights from veladoras flickered and the smell of burning incense filled the air, as speaker after speaker cried out for justice for the families of Romero and the others killed by police.

“Queremos justicia, queremos que metan presos a los asesinos de Jesse Romero,” (We want justice, we want Jesse Romero’s assassins to be jailed) yelled out a speaker through a megaphone, in an effort to drown out the noises of the busy nearby intersection of Breed and César Chávez.

The vigil at the altar was the conclusion of a march that started earlier in the evening at Mariachi Plaza. Over 100 mourners and community activists marched east on 1st Street to the Hollenbeck Police station, where several speakers spoke out against police brutality and what they deemed as targeted violence against Latinos and blacks in poor Los Angeles communities.

Many of the marchers carried signs with anti-police slogans, including a huge banner that called for the firing of LAPD Chief Charlie Beck.

“These killings are not happening in rich affluent neighborhoods where the crime is super minimal, since nobody is harassing kids walking down the street,” said Marisol Márquez, an organizer with Centro CSO who helped put together the vigil and march.

At the vigil, several people spoke about published reports of a witness saying that Jesse Romero did not shoot a gun but instead threw it against a fence, where it went off.

Márquez said that it is hard for community members to believe the LAPD’s account of Romero’s killing.

“This is LAPD trying to cover up for the horrible tragic death of a 14-year-old, why not say there was a gun,” she said. “We hear so many people around the country who are caught with a gun and they are not killed the way Jesse Romero was.”

Police say they are investigating the incident, looking for witnesses and performing tests on the recovered gun. During a press conference on Wednesday, Deputy Chief Robert Arcos said the officer involved shooting appeared to be related to rising gang activity in Boyle Heights.

“While the loss of life is particularly tragic, it is particularly so when the loss involves a youth,” Arcos said. “The tragedy of this event cannot be understated. In a community where violent crime continues to rise, particularly gang crime, this event underscores the need for youth programs and outreach, which could provide opportunities and alternatives for the youth of our community.”

Erick Huerta, a Boyle Heights resident and community activist who attended the vigil said the gathering was a powerful way to counter a heated debate on social media, where many people justified Romero’s killing, implying he was involved in gang activity and possibly shot at police.

“The vigil showed me that there are still individuals in the Boyle Heights community working towards justice to hold the police accountable for what happened,” Huerta said. “There are still individuals working to make the neighborhood safer for everyone and to provide youth alternatives to keep them out of gangs.

“It was important to participate in the vigil because it was a sign that there are [people] working to make a community safer for everyone,” he concluded.

Photo above: Mourners march along 1st Street in memory of Jesse Romero. All photos by Art Torres for Boyle Heights Beat.

 


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Antonio Mejías-Rentas

Antonio Mejías-Rentas is a Senior Editor at Boyle Heights Beat, where he mentors teenage journalists, manages the organization’s website and covers local issues. A veteran bilingual journalist, he's...

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