Melanie E. Lomax, a longtime civil rights lawyer and former head of the Los Angeles Police Commission, was killed late Sunday in a single-car accident near her Hollywood Hills home, police said Monday.
Lomax, 56, was declared dead at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where she was taken by paramedics after the 2005 Jaguar she was driving rolled down her driveway and tumbled 20 feet down a steep embankment. Police sources said Lomax may have had a heart attack.
Renee Grand Pre, an investigator for the Los Angeles County coroner's office, said her office would investigate whether Lomax died from the accident or from natural causes.
An autopsy is scheduled for Wednesday.
"The vehicle rolled down a steep slope and overturned and came to rest upside-down on Outpost Drive," said Lt. Paul Vernon, a Los Angeles Police Department spokesman. "A neighbor heard the crash and ran to the scene and found her suspended upside-down in her seat belt and unconscious."
Described by friends and supporters as outspoken and brash, Lomax was the first African American woman to lead the Los Angeles Police Commission, which she headed during some of the Police Department's stormiest moments in 1990-91. She was appointed to the commission by then-Mayor Tom Bradley, a longtime family friend.
During her brief stint as the commission's acting president, she attracted controversy when she waged a high-profile battle to oust then-Police Chief Daryl F. Gates.
Gates eventually resigned in 1991 after a panel headed by former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher found fault with his leadership as part of its investigation into the police beating of Rodney G. King.
The high-profile battle with Gates took a professional toll on Lomax. The chief accused her of improperly leaking confidential personnel records to a civil rights group that was seeking his ouster, although the State Bar of California later concluded that she violated no professional legal standards. Still, Lomax resigned in July 1991 in response to the Christopher Commission, which had hinted that Gates' critics should also step aside in "the interests of harmony and healing."
A year after Lomax left the Police Commission, the City Council refused to confirm her to a seat on the Water and Power Commission.
She again was involved in controversy in 1995 when she represented then-Police Chief Willie Williams, who alleged that the city had violated his privacy by publicly releasing his confidential personnel files.
With Lomax threatening a lawsuit on Williams' behalf, the City Council voted to overturn the Police Commission's reprimand of the chief for allegedly making false statements to them about accepting free accommodations in Las Vegas.
Lomax, who was described in a 1995 Los Angeles Times profile as a single mother with two adopted children, came from a well-connected family with deep roots in the city. She graduated from Los Angeles High School, UC Berkeley and Loyola Law School.
Her father, the late Lucius Lomax, was a criminal attorney and real estate investor. Her mother, Almena Lomax, was a civil rights activist and journalist who published the Los Angeles Tribune. In the early 1960s, Almena Lomax took her children to the segregated South during the height of the civil rights movement. The experience had a lasting effect on Melanie Lomax, who decided to become a civil rights attorney instead of following her father into criminal law.
Her grandfather owned the historic Dunbar Hotel.
Lomax began practicing law in 1975. She started working for Los Angeles County, defending county agencies in labor and civil matters.
Her private firm, which she founded in 1984, handled hundreds of age, sex and racial discrimination cases.
"She was not easy to get along with, but she had to be that way. She was very tough and feisty and highly intelligent, a tremendous force for good in Los Angeles," Bill Boyarsky, a member of the city Ethics Commission and a former Times reporter, columnist and city editor who wrote about Lomax, said Monday. "She was one of the people who fought hardest for a change in the Los Angeles Police Department. She knew from her experience growing up what was wrong with the Police Department."
Lomax was mentored by the late civil rights attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., with whom she shared a passion for representing the disadvantaged, said attorney Carl Douglas, a Cochran associate.
"Melanie was a tireless public servant committed to improving the lives of others," Douglas said Monday.
Current Police Commission President John Mack said he was "shocked and saddened by the untimely and tragic death of Melanie Lomax."
He said the city was building on the progress of police reform that was begun, in part, by her efforts.
"She was one of the strong voices for reform of the Los Angeles Police Department," Mack said. "She did it her way. In the eyes of some she was a controversial figure, but she clearly made a contribution to the advancement of police reform."