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Police Back Officer in '99 Killing

The LAPD decision repudiates a civilian commission's ruling that the shooting of a mentally ill woman violated policy.

June 17, 2003|Scott Glover and Matt Lait | Times Staff Writers

An internal Los Angeles police board has cleared the officer who fatally shot Margaret Mitchell, a mentally ill woman brandishing a screwdriver, ruling that the officer acted properly and will not face any disciplinary action.

The finding, four years after the shooting sparked protests and multiple investigations, overturns a decision by Los Angeles' civilian Police Commission, which has the final say in determining whether police shootings conform to LAPD rules but does not have the power to discipline officers.

The commission, after months of heated debate, had ruled in a 3-2 vote that Officer Edward Larrigan had violated LAPD policy and should face discipline. Repudiating that finding, the LAPD disciplinary panel known as a board of rights concluded that Mitchell did pose a threat to Larrigan when she lunged at him and that he responded properly during the confrontation.

"Officer Larrigan's response was defensive. It was reactive," said Capt. Richard Wemmer, who headed the three-member board consisting of him, another LAPD captain and a civilian. "It was his last, indeed his only, resort to prevent serious bodily injury or death to himself. And it was compelled in the end by the actions of the victim."

The board's ruling, delivered in a May 12 hearing, resolves a case that has divided city leaders for years. But it reopens a long-running debate over the appropriate role of the Police Commission in providing civilian oversight of the LAPD.

Police Commission President Rick Caruso, who was appointed to the commission after the Mitchell case was reviewed, said he found the disciplinary panel's findings troubling.

"We, as commissioners, should have the last word on this," Caruso said. He added that the decision, and others like it, also prevent the police chief from imposing discipline.

"You basically get your legs cut out from under you," Caruso said. "I don't agree with this process. I never have."

Larrigan's attorney, Michael P. Stone, said the police disciplinary panel had been able to probe more deeply into the case against Larrigan. "That left them with a much better understanding of how the shooting unfolded than the members of the Police Commission," Stone said.

LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Berkow, who was traveling with Chief William J. Bratton in Washington, D.C., and spoke to the chief about the case, said Bratton was not sufficiently familiar with the facts of the Mitchell shooting to comment on it specifically.

But Berkow said Bratton has been frustrated with the disciplinary process.

"He has less power here than in any other police department he's been at," said Berkow, who heads the department's Professional Standards Bureau, which used to be Internal Affairs. "Discipline is not in the hands of the police chief, who is responsible for managing the department."

The U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles and the Los Angeles County district attorney's office both opened investigations into the case but did not bring charges. A civil lawsuit filed by Mitchell's family against the city was settled for $975,000.

Mitchell, who was homeless, was shot May 21, 1999, near 4th Street and La Brea Avenue, shortly after Larrigan and his partner, Kathy Clark, both bike patrol officers, stopped her to determine whether the shopping cart she was pushing had been stolen. As they sought to question her, Mitchell ignored them and began walking away.

After an initial confrontation with the officers, Mitchell pulled a 12-inch screwdriver from a pile of clothes in the shopping cart and began waving it at the officers, who drew their guns. When she allegedly lunged at Larrigan with the screwdriver in her raised hand, he fired once, striking her in the chest. Mitchell died less than an hour later.

The shooting sparked protests and criticism of the police, who were accused of overreacting to the threat posed by Mitchell, a 5-foot, 1-inch-tall woman who weighed 102 pounds.

After a lengthy investigation, however, then-Chief Bernard Parks concluded that, although Larrigan had made tactical mistakes in the moments leading up to the shooting, the shooting was "in policy" because he was in fear for his life at the moment he pulled the trigger.

A subsequent report by the Police Commission's inspector general, Jeffrey C. Eglash, disagreed with the chief's findings. Eglash cited Mitchell's age and stature and the statements of witnesses who denied that Mitchell had lunged at Larrigan, in concluding that Mitchell did not present a deadly threat to the officer when he fired.

The conflicting views of Parks and Eglash on the shooting set the stage for a heated debate among the five members of the Police Commission who, under the City Charter, had final say in whether the shooting violated department rules.

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