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18 Oct 2016

After Oct. 8: We Need to Fight to Make Sure Palm Springs Does Not Become a Gangland

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The memorial outside of the Palm Springs Police Department building. The memorial outside of the Palm Springs Police Department building. Brane Jevric

The “breaking news” TV flash disrupted a peaceful Saturday afternoon at my home in Palm Springs. Three cops had been shot while responding to a domestic disturbance just a couple of miles away.

I started feeling uneasy and tense—like I used to feel in my hometown of Sarajevo.

I turned the TV off.

Within minutes, my editor called and left me a message, asking me if I was available to cover the shootings. I didn’t respond. I’ve done my share of violent breaking-news stories all around the globe. No more.

Later, my editor texted me, saying that two of the three officers—Jose “Gil” Vega, 63, and Lesley Zerebny, 27—had died.

I’ve seen many senseless killings, as a war reporter in Romania and what was once Yugoslavia. When I lived and worked in Rio de Janeiro, every morning would start with the gruesome front-page murder-scene photos of butchered bodies. Rio is a beautiful place, but there’s too much violence.

I chose to start a new life here in the desert after I was granted political asylum in the United States. I chose to live in Palm Springs because there were rarely shootouts, or gunfire, or police sirens, or dead bodies at night on the local evening news. For more than 20 years, I’ve been covering events in this peaceful oasis—until that serenity was shattered midday on Saturday, Oct. 8.

A homegrown idiot gang member allegedly decided to wipe out the cops who came to his door, just doing their jobs. (I’m not going to mention him by name.) The police officers—one a veteran officer within months of retirement; another a young woman who had just returned to work after having a child—had no chance the moment they walked up to the door. The Palm Springs Police Department should consider using this tragic event to change its 911 procedures when dealing with gang members. The red flags must go up before the dispatch. Always.

Remember the nonfiction book (and subsequent movie) The Onion Field? Its author, a former cop, Joe Wambaugh, actually lived here in the desert. After the infamous case—two police officers were kidnapped by criminals during a traffic stop, with one of the cops later killed—the LAPD changed its police tactics.

Little information has been released about the third police officer who was shot in Palm Springs. He is a material witness in this murder case, and is understandably being protected at this time. Sooner or later, he may testify and/or face the media inquiries. I spoke to a cop who survived a shootout with a gang member in Cabazon a few years back. He retired and became a plumber.

I’ve been shot at during the wars I covered, and you never forget it. I’ll always remember the hornet-like sound of the bullets that missed me by a mere chance. The sound of bullets hitting or piercing hard surfaces inches away stays with you—coming back to mind after hearing a sound with the slightest resemblance.

However, I’m not going to dwell on the fact that two cops were shot and killed in my neighborhood. Instead, I’m going to do just as those slain cops did on that fateful day: I’m going to do my job.

I’m going to write about and expose the gangs of Palm Springs. I hope that other media outlets will do the same. And I have a message for the members of the Varrio Las Palmas gang, to which the alleged cop killer reportedly belongs: This is Palm Springs, not a gangland.

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