Three years ago, the Los Angeles Police Commission ruled that an officer violated the Police Department's use-of-force policy when he shot and killed Margaret Mitchell, a 55-year-old mentally ill woman armed only with a large screwdriver. The City Council settled a lawsuit by Mitchell's family for nearly $1 million.
End of story? If this were a new LAPD, perhaps. But last month, the old LAPD quietly defied the civilian commission -- quietly, that is, until Times writers Scott Glover and Matt Lait reported in today's paper that the officer will not be punished.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 19, 2003 Home Edition California Part B Page 16 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Police shooting -- An editorial Tuesday erred in stating that a May 12 L.A. Police Department board of rights hearing on the Margaret Mitchell shooting was closed to the public. Although not publicized, it was open.
In a closed hearing four years to the month after Mitchell was killed, an LAPD panel that metes out discipline decided none was needed. According to a transcript, shooting Mitchell was Officer Edward Larrigan's "last, indeed his only, resort to prevent serious bodily injury or death to himself."
The board of rights, as the panel is called, obviously tried to keep its decision under wraps for good reason: It defies common sense that a cop, presumably in good physical shape, would have no other option but to kill a woman who stood barely 5 feet and weighed little more than 100 pounds.
The May 1999 shooting occurred on La Brea Avenue after Larrigan and his bicycle patrol partner stopped Mitchell to see whether she had stolen a shopping cart. Larrigan claimed that Mitchell lunged at him with the screwdriver.
The Los Angeles County district attorney dropped a criminal investigation because witness reports differed sharply. After an internal investigation, then-Police Chief Bernard C. Parks found the shooting justified but criticized the officers' tactics. The panel defended even those. In recommending against disciplinary measures, it said "any issues" associated with tactics should be addressed via training.
Yes, the four hours of training on handling the mentally ill that the LAPD then offered was inadequate, as we have argued on these pages since Mitchell's death. But the disciplinary panel's decision repudiates improvements in training made since then.
Its insular, we-know-best culture led the LAPD into the Rodney King beating and the Rampart corruption scandal. The route to a new, open LAPD lies in meaningful civilian oversight. The Police Commission can strengthen its inspector general by giving the office the authority to investigate officer-involved shootings from the outset. But as long as the department, not the commission, doles out punishment, reform must come from the inside as well.
Police Chief William J. Bratton may have inherited this case, but it's up to him to send the right message to his officers: The Margaret Mitchell killing was wrong, and it's indefensible to say otherwise.