LOS ANGELES — The indignant minister arrived at the police station to demand answers when an officer fatally shot a black suspect.
“It had nothing to do with him being black,” a white police official insisted.
The minister was actor Anthony Lee, playing a role on a 1997 episode of the CBS police-drama “Brooklyn South” that would foretell a deadly irony.
Lee was shot to death Saturday at a Halloween party when a Los Angeles police officer responding to a noise complaint mistook the actor’s costume gun for a real weapon.
The slain actor was mourned Wednesday night by some 300 people, including friends and family members, who took part in a Buddhist memorial ceremony at the Los Angeles Friendship Center.
Among the mourners was Lee’s sister Tina Vogt.
She told reporters before the ceremony of the irony of her brother’s death, noting he was a devout Buddhist who was devoted to his religion’s teachings of pursuing a peaceful way of life.
“Despite the violent manner in which he died, my brother was an anti-violent man,” Vogt said.
The ceremony included chanting and the burning of incense in Lee’s honor.
Critics question whether the officer overreacted because Lee was black – even though the officer was, too. LAPD officials said they don’t believe race played a role in the shooting.
The LAPD has struggled to distance itself from race issues such as the 1991 Rodney King beating and the O.J. Simpson double-murder case, in which Det. Mark Fuhrman was discredited by taped interviews of him repeatedly using a racial slur.
The ongoing Rampart police corruption probe, however, shows that many of the key officers accused of brutalizing and framing suspects in largely black and Hispanic neighborhoods are themselves black or Hispanic.
Inherent racism within the culture and structure of the LAPD may influence nonwhite officers to distrust or repudiate people of their own race, said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
“For years, those of us who do civil rights work thought the answer to police brutality was integration,” Ripston said. “What we see is that black police officers can be as brutal as white officers.”
Joey Johnson, an anti-police brutality activist with the Stolen Lives Project, a catalog of victims of police shootings, said he believes the officer was mostly frightened of Lee because he was black.
“If he had been a white person with a toy gun – or real gun for that matter – the police would have thought twice,” he said. “Instead, it’s almost instinctual that they shoot when it looks like a large black man has a gun, regardless of the race of the officer.”
Lee and three other guests were standing in a brightly lighted back bedroom of a mansion in the affluent Benedict Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles when Officer Tarriel Hopper and a female officer, responding to a noise complaint, arrived to quiet the party.
After the officers contacted security guards at the home and asked for the owners, the female officer remained in the kitchen while Hopper left to search the rear of the house with a flashlight, said attorney Johnnie Cochran, who is representing Lee’s sister.
That’s when Hopper saw Lee and three friends through the window.
The actor held a realistic replica of an Israeli-made semiautomatic handgun as part of his costume.
Although Lee brought a rubber devil Halloween mask to the party, he was not wearing it when he was shot, witnesses said.
Hopper told investigators that Lee looked at him and pointed the fake weapon toward the window. Fearing for his life, police officials said, Hopper fired at Lee nine times, killing him.
Police Chief Bernard C. Parks dismissed the idea that race influenced the shooting.
Police officials refused to discuss whether Hopper registered the race of the victim before he fired.
The fact that Hopper is black, Parks said, seems to discount fears that the victim was shot because he was black.
Any officer in that situation, he added, would have mistaken Lee’s fake gun for a real weapon and respond with deadly force.
Even Cochran concedes race might be irrelevant in the case. He has blamed the shooting on “tactics and strategies gone awry.”
Hopper has been placed on paid leave while the department and county district attorney’s office investigate the shooting.
Police culture often can affect the way black, Hispanic or Asian officers view communities that are largely nonwhite, said researcher Darnell F. Hawkins, of the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Those officers might become predisposed to using force against others of their own race because they often are assigned to high-crime, ethnic neighborhoods, he said.
Minority officers may not even realize they have developed prejudices, said Hawkins, a professor of African American studies and sociology who has written extensively on race and crime.
Research shows officers react faster and with more force when confronted with people of color, he said.
In the Lee shooting, however, Hawkins cautioned that it’s possible the officer focused only on the apparent gun in the victim’s hand – not his skin color.
“Police are taught to shoot,” he said. “And even though they are trained, they get scared when they feel their lives are threatened.”