Police Rebut Alleged Abuse Claim

Police Rebut Alleged Abuse Claim
LAPD chief says Tony Muhammad was hurt when officers wrestled him to the ground and accuses the minister of battery on a lawman.
By Andrew Blankstein and Richard Winton
Times Staff Writers

September 1, 2005

Detectives examining the scuffle between Los Angeles police officers and Tony Muhammad believe that the Nation of Islam leader was injured when officers wrestled him to the ground to handcuff him, top police officials said Wednesday.

Police Chief William J. Bratton said the department would ask the city attorney to charge Muhammad with misdemeanor battery on a police officer stemming from an altercation at a vigil for a shooting victim Aug. 25.

The preliminary findings of the LAPD investigation contrast sharply with Muhammad’s contention that an officer kicked him in the face when he was on the ground and handcuffed.

The incident has drawn criticism from some ministers and community activists who have sided with Muhammad, 47, and have demanded that he not be charged with any crime, that Bratton apologize to him and that the officers involved in the incident be fired and prosecuted.

Top LAPD officials, who asked not to be identified, said Wednesday that Muhammad was arrested after he allegedly pushed an officer and after others at the vigil stole a radio from a second officer and ripped off his name tag and pocket flap.

They also said police did not immediately recognize the minister, who is the western regional director of the Nation of Islam and has been involved in anti-gang initiatives in Los Angeles for a decade.

Bratton, who did not discuss details of the confrontation, said at a news conference that the department had so far interviewed more than two dozen officers and other witnesses as part of its investigation.

He said the department would prepare a preliminary report on the incident within a month.

The chief’s briefing followed a two-hour meeting at Parker Center of Bratton, top LAPD commanders, Police Commission President John Mack and religious leaders, many from the African American community.

In addition to receiving an update on the Muhammad investigation, Bratton said, the group discussed his proposals to speed up use-of-force investigations, to consider community participation in police-recruit training and to form a stand-alone city agency to tackle violent street gangs.

“I’m committed to making sure we have a thorough and comprehensive investigation into the incident, get at the facts, get to the truth,” Mack said Wednesday. “We really have a golden opportunity to begin to accomplish some of the long-term goals to transform the institutional culture of LAPD.”

Muhammad and activist Danny Bakewell, who has taken up the Nation of Islam minister’s cause, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Bakewell has said the incident was racially motivated, sentiments that were echoed by other speakers at a Tuesday night meeting that drew 400 people to a South Los Angeles church.

Muhammad, who addressed the gathering but did not discuss the specific events that led to his arrest, said the Police Department needed to own up to its problems.

In comments directed at officers, he said, “You waited until you got the handcuffs on me, and you kicked me.”

Leonard Farrakhan, chief of staff of the Nation of Islam, told the crowd that a representative from Boston had met with Bratton on Monday. “He was a very nice gentleman. He was very kind to our representative,” Farrakhan said.

The Nation of Islam appreciated the meeting, he said, but any further meetings would have to directly address the issue of Muhammad’s treatment.

Thomas A. Mesereau Jr., Michael Jackson’s defense lawyer, and Carl Douglas, one of O.J. Simpson’s lawyers, were also at the Tuesday community event.

Mesereau said Wednesday that he had met with Muhammad about his defense. Though details had not been worked out, the attorney who recently won Jackson’s acquittal on child molestation charges said he was eager to assist Muhammad in any way he could.

“Although I’m just learning the facts of what happened, I believe that what the LAPD did was outrageous, abusive and unprofessional,” Mesereau said. “Why would you beat up one of the leading voices of America against gang violence and gang culture? If Minister Tony Muhammad lived and preached in Beverly Hills or Pasadena, would he have been beaten to a pulp? Of course not.”

Muhammad was arrested Aug. 25 at a vigil for Nahun Beaird, a 21-year-old victim of a gang shooting. Witnesses have charged that paramedics gave up trying to revive Beaird while he was still alive. But Fire Department officials have said that the man had a fatal head wound and was dead.

Police said Muhammad was in a large group of people who were approached by officers and was asked to move two sport utility vehicles that were double-parked on 10th Avenue near 63rd Street in Hyde Park.

Police said Muhammad became belligerent and pushed a police officer after he was asked to move the vehicles.

Others who were in the crowd with Muhammad then attacked the second officer, prompting police to use pepper spray, LAPD officials said. One officer also deployed a foot-long collapsible baton to move back the crowd that had enveloped them.

Muhammad sought refuge in a nearby apartment complex, emerging about 15 minutes later.

At that time, police said, a team of officers wrestled him to the ground and handcuffed him.

Police said the bruising and swelling that was still evident on Muhammad’s face Tuesday night were the result of the minister’s being forced to the ground.

Police released a tape and transcript Saturday of an exchange between Muhammad and an officer at the scene.

According to LAPD officials, the tape began running during the initial run-in with Muhammad. The officer addressed Muhammad, saying, “Don’t walk behind me; don’t walk behind me.” Muhammad replied, “I’m not doing nothing; I’m not going nowhere.”

After the officer ordered him to “back up,” Muhammad responded, “Make me,” according to the tape and transcript.

The officer repeated, “Back up,” and Muhammad again responded by shouting, “Make me.” Bakewell and other activists said the transcript merely demonstrated that the minister was demanding that officers should respect his constitutional right to free assembly.

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