Long Beach police officers were justified in the fatal shooting of a knife-wielding schizophrenic woman in January, according to a department report that triggered an angry response at an NAACP meeting where it was released Sunday.
In a presentation to the Long Beach chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, Chief Jerome E. Lance said officers shot Marcella Byrd, a 57-year-old black woman, after determining that she posed a threat to bystanders near a busy downtown intersection where they had cornered her.
"It was a split-second decision to counter the threat to the community," he said.
Byrd was shot on Jan. 19 after she reportedly brandished and refused to drop an 8-inch knife in a three-minute standoff with police after she had taken a cartful of groceries from a store without paying. Byrd's refusal to cooperate with officers and the threat she posed dictated the incident's outcome, Lance said.
"As much as it pains me to say this, she's the one who caused this to happen," Lance said. "We wanted her to talk to us. We didn't want to do this."
A report by the county district attorney's office also determined that the shooting was justified.
The audience was quiet during Lance's presentation, but the mood became confrontational during an hourlong question-and-answer session.
Montebello lawyer Luis Carrillo walked out of the meeting after decrying the report.
"This investigation is a total whitewash," he said. "Things like this happen because you train your officers to dehumanize people by calling them suspects. You're just trigger-happy."
Lance remained composed, even as some in the audience yelled and one woman started repeating: "trigger-happy, trigger-happy."
Some questioned why officers, who shot two rounds of beanbags at Byrd, didn't try other means to subdue her, such as tackling her or aiming their guns at a less deadly location than her torso.
Lance said those options would have increased the threat to bystanders or the officers.
With only three minutes elapsing between the arrival of the first officer on the scene and Byrd's raising the knife toward the sergeant with the beanbag gun, officers didn't have time to consider other courses of action, Lance said.
Race was not a factor in the incident, Lance said in response to a man who said the officers would have tried harder to avoid violence had Byrd been white.
"They were only looking at her as an armed suspect who attempted to steal a cart of groceries," he said. "They were not looking at the color of her skin. They were doing their duty to protect people from an attack."
Not everyone was critical of the officers' actions.
"They didn't have time to sit there and talk to her," said Tymeshia Beeks, 26, of Long Beach. "I'm glad they thought of the community's protection first and took action rather than wait too long."
Lance said he wished that more people would empathize with the officers.
"The community and people who are not in our business don't understand," he said. "It's difficult for them to put themselves in our shoes and understand the speed of this sequence of events."
During his presentation, Lance cried as he spoke of his sympathy for the officers who killed Byrd.
"That action will make indelible impressions on them," he said, taking long pauses as he wiped away tears and tried to compose himself. "You never forget. You simply--you simply live with that sad fact you have taken a human life."
Lance presented his department's findings first to the chapter membership Sunday because he had been unable to answer their questions at a meeting in February and thought that it was his duty to address the NAACP first, he said.
Also at the meeting, an NAACP-led task force formed after Byrd's shooting recommended that the Police Department bolster training on dealing with the mentally ill and increase staffing of the county mental-health professionals who work with the department.
"My concern is preventing something like this from happening again," said Naomi Rainey, chapter president.
"The training procedures have got to change. We don't know what the outcome would have been had the officers really understood what kind of person they were dealing with."