A sharply divided Los Angeles Police Commission on Tuesday rejected the recommendation of Chief Bernard C. Parks and found that the fatal police shooting of a frail homeless woman last year violated department policy.
Three of the five commissioners sided with their civilian watchdog, Inspector General Jeffrey C. Eglash, who concluded that 55-year-old Margaret Mitchell did not pose a deadly threat to two bicycle patrol officers who stopped her to determine whether she was pushing a stolen shopping cart.
One of the officers, Edward Larrigan, shot the 5-foot-1, 102-pound, mentally ill woman when she allegedly lunged at him with a 12-inch screwdriver, police have said.
Board President Gerald L. Chaleff, along with Commissioners T. Warren Jackson and Dean Hansell, said in a written statement that they recognized that Larrigan honestly believed that he was in imminent danger.
"However, the preponderance of evidence does not support that degree of threat based on the totality of the circumstances, including Ms. Mitchell's stature and age," the statement read. "We also believe that the officer had not exhausted all reasonable alternatives at the time he fired."
Commissioners Herbert F. Boeckmann and Raquelle De La Rocha, who found that Larrigan acted within policy, also issued a written statement supporting their view.
"In the final analysis, we find that the officers' perceptions of immediate threat were not unreasonable and that Officer Larrigan's use of deadly force was within department policy," that statement said.
The commission found that Larrigan's partner, Kathy Clark, who did not fire her weapon, should receive additional training based on her role in the incident.
Since the May 21, 1999, shooting, community and police activists have been closely monitoring the commission's handling of the case to see whether the board would find the incident in or out of policy. The civilian panel was in the politically difficult position of having to decide whether to side with its strong-willed police chief or its independent inspector general, who were at odds on the issue.
The commission's ruling, clearly a blow to Parks, comes at a time when the department is dealing with the ever-expanding Rampart corruption scandal, in which more than 70 LAPD officers are under investigation for either committing crimes or knowing about them and helping to cover them up. The commission's siding with Eglash could signal an enhanced role for the civilian watchdog as the Rampart probe continues to unfold.
Parks, while finding that Larrigan's tactics in the Mitchell shooting were improper, recommended that his use of force be found "in policy."
Eglash, however, concluded in a confidential report to the commission that civilian witnesses at the scene did not see Mitchell lunge at Larrigan, as the department says she did, sources said. Eglash also determined that the tactics employed by Larrigan were so poor that they contributed to the shooting, those sources said.
Months of Deliberations
The commission spent months deliberating over the incident and even considered changing the way the department evaluates shootings. On Tuesday, after more than five hours in closed session, the panel reached its split decision. Four commissioners declined comment after the vote. Boeckmann could not be reached for comment.
Cmdr. David J. Kalish, the department's spokesman, said the chief was unavailable for comment. Kalish did not criticize the board's findings.
"It's the role of the Police Commission to make a final determination on the use of force and that's what it did," Kalish said. "The case will now be referred back to the department for the administration of discipline."
Kalish said Larrigan faces a wide range of possible punishment, from a written reprimand to termination.
Attorney Leo Terrell, who represents Mitchell's family, said he was pleased with the outcome.
"The three members who voted for the shooting to be out of policy did the right thing," said Terrell, who is suing the city on behalf of the family. "The commissioners who voted against that finding should be ashamed of themselves."
Terrell called on Parks to resign, adding that the chief "owes the city of Los Angeles and the Mitchell family an apology for the way he's misrepresented the shooting."
According to police accounts, Mitchell was pushing a shopping cart along a sidewalk near the intersection of 4th Street and La Brea Avenue when she was spotted by Larrigan and Clark.
The two officers, on bike patrol, decided to stop Mitchell to see if the shopping cart she was pushing was stolen, according to police. At first, neither officer recognized Mitchell. But eventually Clark told Larrigan that she thought she recognized her as a transient known for her "explosive, violent behavior," according to a statement by Parks.