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Officers Acted Properly in Shooting, Parks Says

Police: Chief accuses activists of seeking political gain from the slaying of a mentally ill homeless woman.

May 28, 1999|JOSEPH TREVINO and MATT LAIT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks said Thursday that his department's ongoing investigation into last week's police shooting of a homeless, mentally ill woman has produced no evidence that the officers involved acted improperly.

"From what we've seen so far, these officers, at this point, do not appear [to have] done anything wrong," Parks told reporters outside the LAPD's downtown headquarters. "We are not going to, for political expediency or for community concern, just declare that these officers are wrong or make them a scapegoat."

Margaret LaVerne Mitchell, a diminutive 54-year-old homeless woman with a history of mental illness, was shot to death after she allegedly lunged at an officer with a 12-inch screwdriver. Two bike patrol officers, police said, stopped Mitchell to determine whether the shopping cart she was pushing was stolen.

In his strongest defense yet of his department in the matter, Parks complained that some community activists were taking advantage of the shooting to advance their own agendas. Some activists, he said, were unfairly characterizing the shooting as racist, because Mitchell was African American, while others were manipulating it to blast the LAPD's handling of the homeless and mentally ill.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday June 21, 1999 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 3 inches; 102 words Type of Material: Correction
Police shooting--A story in the May 28 issue of The Times appeared under a headline that misleadingly implied that Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks believed officers involved in the shooting of a mentally ill homeless woman "acted properly." In fact, the story quoted Parks as saying, "From what we've seen so far, these officers, at this point, do not appear [to have] done anything wrong." The same story misquoted Parks in his criticism of Margaret Laverne Mitchell's treatment. The chief blamed an array of societal failures in dealing with the mentally ill, noting that Mitchell had even become disconnected from her family. "It was interesting that even family members hadn't talked to her for over a year," he said.

"We're not going to carry the burden of racism in the country of the United States for the last 200 years and place it on those officers' shoulders," Parks said, noting that the officer who shot Mitchell is Latino and his partner is half Asian American, half Latina.

"We're not going to place 130 years of concerns of whether the LAPD is sensitive or not on those officers' shoulders," he said. "We're not going to allow other people to create that agenda and try to make it a race-based issue when it's not."

Parks' comments followed an unrelated news conference on the construction of a police facility and were the most outspoken and heated statements he has made about the May 21 shooting, which occurred about 4:20 p.m. near the busy intersection of 4th Street and La Brea Avenue near Hancock Park. Mitchell's death is the most controversial officer-involved shooting that Parks has faced since becoming chief nearly two years ago.

And for the first time, Parks has found himself at odds with community activists who have been key supporters. Since the shooting, there have been daily demonstrations protesting the officers' actions.

Several activists have raised questions about why the officers did not use nonlethal means, such as pepper spray, to subdue Mitchell. Others have criticized the officers for stopping Mitchell just because she was pushing a shopping cart.

On Thursday, Parks appeared annoyed that the shooting, which also is being investigated by the FBI, has generated so much attention.

"We can talk about training, we can talk about other things, but these officers are placed in a situation . . . responding to spontaneous events, and they are being asked to do something well beyond the skill of anyone," Parks said.

The chief also criticized protesters who are trying to link Mitchell's death to recent cases of alleged police misconduct in New York and Riverside.

"It almost appears as if some people have great glee that we have this Mitchell incident so that they now can tie these three incidents together," Parks said. "I think the same people that would criticize law enforcement for stereotyping them seem to have a knack of stereotyping law enforcement. If police officers in turn stereotype the community in that fashion, those same people would be up in an uproar."

Parks also defended the officers' decision to confront Mitchell about her shopping cart, which was stuffed with personal belongings.

"It's a very common practice," Parks said, referring to officers' questioning of people pushing such carts. He added that the LAPD received complaints from citizens who get "upset when they see people in their neighborhood with shopping carts living on the streets."

Parks said Officers Edward Larrigan, 27, and Kathy Clark, 29--the two who confronted Mitchell--remain on the job but have been reassigned.

"People have to realize that they are not doing well as individuals," the chief said. "We've had to send them to [department psychologists] . . . because it's not a fun thing for them to be criticized and stereotyped."

According to police accounts, Larrigan shot Mitchell after she lunged at him with the screwdriver. Eyewitnesses support that account, police said. An attorney representing Mitchell's family, however, contends that he has found witnesses who dispute the police account.

Parks said the LAPD is unaware of such witnesses.

Unless those witnesses come forward or other evidence is uncovered that contradicts the officers' version, Parks said, "those officers basically have every right to be supported by this department and this city. . . . We cannot declare at this point, as many people would like us to, that these officers were wrong. We'll base our determination on the investigation."

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