root - Posted on 18 November 2003

LAPD Disciplinary panel rule that houseless woman's (Margaret Mitchell's) death by police officer was justifiable

by Scott Glover and Matt Lait/reprinted from the LA Times

A Los Angeles police officer who fatally shot a mentally ill homeless women armed with a screwdriver in 1999 will not be disci-plined, although the civilian Police Commission had ruled that his tactics and use of deadly flawed that he should be punished.

Repudiating the commission’s finding three years ago, an LAPD disciplinary panel found that Officer Edward Larrigan was justified when he shot 55-year-old Margaret Mitchell, according to transcripts of a May 12 hearing.

Although the Police Commission found that Mitchell had not posed a legitimate threat to Larrigan, the disciplinary panel determined that Mitchell’s conduct had left Larrigan with no choice but to shoot. The officers said she lunged at Larrigan during their confrontation. As a result, the panel concluded, Larrigan will not be disciplined.

“Officer Larrigan’s response was defensive. It was reactive,” said Capt. Richard Wemmer, who headed the three-member discipli- nary panel, which included 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 ruling by the LAPD Board of Rights raises issues relating both to the shooting and to civilian oversight of the Police Department. Department leaders have wrestled for years over the confrontation that resulted in Mitchell’s death. Police Chief Bernard C. Park’s concluded that it had conformed with LAPD rules and two police commissioners agreed with him, but a commission majority found that had it violated department rules. Thus, the ruling, which effectively overrules the commission majority, calls into question the Police Commission’s judgement and its ability to be the final voice of such matters.

In the board’s decision, Wemmer praised Larrigan for protecting others from Mitchell’s “frenzied and irrational” behavior. Mitchell was stopped because she was pushing a shopping cart that officers suspected was stolen.

“Sworn to protect and serve, Officer Larrigan did not have the luxury to let her go,” Wemmer said. “Rather, he went in harm’s way and, consistent with policy, acted in defense of life,”

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 chief of the LAPD from imposing discipline when warranted.

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

LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Berkow, who was traveling with Chief William J. Bratton in the 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.”

Mitchell was shot May 21, 1999, near the intersection of Fourth 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 had been stolen. As the officers 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 Parks concluded that, although Larrigan had made tactical mistakes in the moments leading posed up to the shooting, the shooting itself 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 report by the Police Commission’s inspector general, Jeffrey C. Eglash, disagreed with the chief’s findings. Eglash cited Mitchell’s age and stature, as well as 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.

After months of closed-door deliberations, the commission voted 3 to 5 to find the shooting out of policy,” with Commission President Gerald Chaleff and Commissioners T. Warren Jackson and Dean and Hansell citing some of the same factors referred to in Englash’s report to support their votes. Commissioners Raquelle De La Rocha and Herbert F. Boeckmann dissented. Boeckmann is the only commissioner who remains on the panel; his term is about to end.

Once the commission had made its determination, Larrigan was ordered to appear before an LAPD disciplinary panel known as the board of rights, subjecting him to punishment ranging from an official reprimand to termination. Larrigan’s board appearance was put off for years because of the pending criminal investigation into the case and then because of other delays.

Chaleff, now a civilian LAPD official, said he has long argued that the City Charter should be changed to give the commission a role in imposing discipline. He declined further comment.

Eglash said the Mitchell shoots exposes a flaw in the system under which officer-involved shootings and other matters are reviewed at the LAPD. The problem, he said, is that officers such as Larrigan are not given a chance to mount a defense of their actions before the commission reviews the case.

Because of that, the commission’s ruling was referred back to a board of rights to hear evidence and recommend punishment.

Michael P. Stone, Larrigan’s attorney, said the disciplinary to evidence that had not been privy to evidence that had not been available to others who reviewed the case in the past.


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