Earlier the same day, two deputies in Florida also were shot at by an unknown assailant.
The incidents on both coasts came just days after a man shot and killed two New York police officers while they were sitting in their patrol car in Brooklyn. In that case, the suspected shooter – who subsequently committed suicide – had posted inflammatory comments on social media threatening to take revenge for the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
Both black men’s deaths this summer prompted widespread, and occasionally, violent protests, which were renewed after grand juries this fall decided not to indict the officers responsible.
The Los Angeles officers were unharmed in Sunday’s attack, and an LAPD spokesman has said that it is too soon to tell what the shooter’s motivations were.
While some observers see parallels to the Brooklyn shooting and are issuing a renewed call for restraint and calm, others say the ambush needs to be seen in a broader context. And, they add, it is important to note that protesting the deaths of unarmed men is not the same as inciting violence against police officers.
“There was this type of violence happening long before the Ferguson grand jury’s decision to not indict Officer Darren Wilson,” says Jasmyne Cannick, a political and social commentator in Los Angeles. “I think most people in Los Angeles and throughout America would agree that protesting police brutality is not an open call to try and kill officers and there should not be a blanket assumption that every time an officer is shot at it has something to do with the recent protests or that it is somehow related to the New York Police Department shooting.”
But some Los Angeles activists say they believe Sunday’s shooting was motivated by revenge.
“This is clearly and definitively retaliatory,” says Najee Ali, a well-known black activist and executive director of Project Islamic H.O.P.E. in Los Angeles. “Honestly, and with all due respect to those who don’t think so, they are not from gangs like myself. I know how we think, eat and breathe. These gang members see themselves as protectors of the community.”
The LAPD itself is saying it is too early to tell. They have one suspect in custody and are pursuing a second.
“Our officers get shot at for other reasons,” says Commander Andrew Smith. “The best way to really understand the motives for this is to talk to those who perpetrated it.”
The LAPD called a citywide tactical alert that lasted about nine hours. Officers recovered a rifle at the scene of the shooting, which occurred at around 9:30 p.m. on Sunday evening.
But Mr. Ali says the site of the ambush is a clear indicator of the shooter’s intent to send a message.
It happened within blocks of where Ezell Ford, a 25-year-old mentally ill black man, was shot by LAPD officers on Aug. 11. The autopsy from that incident was released Monday. The autopsy shows Mr. Ford was shot three times – once in the right side, once in the right back and once in the right arm.
Because of that, other local activists are calling for restraint and calm.
“We have repeatedly called for non-violent, peaceful, and responsible protest and actions. And have repeatedly condemned all violence especially when it purports to be done in the name of the victims of police violence,” says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an author and president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, which meets regularly in the community with open-mike meetings. “Attacks on police must be condemned unequivocally and with vigor.”
He adds, however, “We'd be naive if we didn't see that some elements who have grudges, gripes, or hostility toward the police, and in more cases than not have mental challenges, would take the law into their own hands and perversely see an attack on police as some kind of retribution.”
Those frustrations can stem from a host of issues, including race, socio-economic conditions, and laws that have either been written or applied unfairly – requiring a cautious and thoughtful approach, says Tod Burke, professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia.
“Some of this can be simply people taking out their frustration for totally different reasons,” says Professor Burke. "And their hatred toward the police might be much more than a police issue but a law issue. Therefore, the grievances might better be directed at lawmakers, not police.”
Joel Jacobson, an assistant attorney general in the criminal appeals division for New Mexico, says that he suspects that both the Los Angeles and Florida incidents will be found to have been in retaliation for police killings of Garner and Brown.
“Surely the ambush shooting is related, though I also suspect that, like the New York ambush shooting, the connection is probably mediated through mental illness,” says Mr. Jacobson.
Jacobsen said he believes the episode is an opportunity for increased understanding through dialogue.
“I would like a national audience to understand that cops are individuals, and that no generalization about them can ever be more than partially true,” he says. “The last thing we want is for cops to close ranks and protect the bad and dangerous ones among them. But if they feel beleaguered and attacked, that's how they will respond.”