LAPD Acted Properly In Shooting Homeless Woman, Chief Says FWD

Tom Boland (
Tue, 1 Jun 1999 12:13:32 -0700 (PDT)

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FWD  Los Angeles Times - May 28, 1999 [California, USA]


  Police: Chief accuses activists of seeking political gain
  from the slaying of a mentally ill homeless woman.

  By JOSEPH TREVINO, MATT LAIT, Special to The Times

     Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks said Thursday that his
department's ongoing investigation into last week's police shooting of a
homeless, mentally ill woman has produced no evidence that the officers
involved acted improperly.

     "From what we've seen so far, these officers, at this point, do not
appear [to have] done anything wrong," Parks told reporters outside the
LAPD's downtown headquarters. "We are not going to, for political
expediency or for community concern, just declare that these officers are
wrong or make them a scapegoat."

     Margaret LaVerne Mitchell, a diminutive 54-year-old homeless woman
with a history of mental illness, was shot to death after she allegedly
lunged at an officer with a 12-inch screwdriver. Two bike patrol
officers, police said, stopped Mitchell to determine whether the shopping
cart she was pushing was stolen.

     In his strongest defense yet of his department in the matter, Parks
complained that some community activists were taking advantage of the
shooting to advance their own agendas. Some activists, he said, were
unfairly characterizing the shooting as racist, because Mitchell was
African American, while others were manipulating it to blast the LAPD's
handling of the homeless and mentally ill.

     "We're not going to carry the burden of racism in the country of the
United States for the last 200 years and place it on those officers'
shoulders," Parks said, noting that the officer who shot Mitchell is
Latino and his partner is half Asian American, half Latina.

     "We're not going to place 130 years of concerns of whether the LAPD is
sensitive or not on those officers' shoulders," he said. "We're not going
to allow other people to create that agenda and try to make it a
race-based issue when it's not."

     Parks' comments followed an unrelated news conference on the
construction of a police facility and were the most outspoken and heated
statements he has made about the May 21 shooting, which occurred about
4:20 p.m. near the busy intersection of 4th Street and La Brea Avenue
near Hancock Park. Mitchell's death is the most controversial
officer-involved shooting that Parks has faced since becoming chief
nearly two years ago.

     And for the first time, Parks has found himself at odds with community
activists who have been key supporters. Since the shooting, there have
been daily demonstrations protesting the officers' actions.

     Several activists have raised questions about why the officers did not
use nonlethal means, such as pepper spray, to subdue Mitchell. Others
have criticized the officers for stopping Mitchell just because she was
pushing a shopping cart.

     On Thursday, Parks appeared annoyed that the shooting, which also is
being investigated by the FBI, has generated so much attention.

     "We can talk about training, we can talk about other things, but these
officers are placed in a situation . . . responding to spontaneous
events, and they are being asked to do something well beyond the skill of
anyone," Parks said.

     The chief also criticized protesters who are trying to link Mitchell's
death to recent cases of alleged police misconduct in New York and

     "It almost appears as if some people have great glee that we have this
Mitchell incident so that they now can tie these three incidents
together," Parks said. "I think the same people that would criticize law
enforcement for stereotyping them seem to have a knack of stereotyping
law enforcement. If police officers in turn stereotype the community in
that fashion, those same people would be up in an uproar."

     Parks also defended the officers' decision to confront Mitchell about
her shopping cart, which was stuffed with personal belongings.

     "It's a very common practice," Parks said, referring to officers'
questioning of people pushing such carts. He added that the LAPD received
complaints from citizens who get "upset when they see people in their
neighborhood with shopping carts living on the streets."

     Parks said Officers Edward Larrigan, 27, and Kathy Clark, 29--the two
who confronted Mitchell--remain on the job but have been reassigned.

     "People have to realize that they are not doing well as individuals,"
the chief said. "We've had to send them to [department psychologists] . .
. because it's not a fun thing for them to be criticized and

     According to police accounts, Larrigan shot Mitchell after she lunged
at him with the screwdriver. Eyewitnesses support that account, police
said. An attorney representing Mitchell's family, however, contends that
he has found witnesses who dispute the police account.

     Parks said the LAPD is unaware of such witnesses.

     Unless those witnesses come forward or other evidence is uncovered
that contradicts the officers' version, Parks said, "those officers
basically have every right to be supported by this department and this
city. . . . We cannot declare at this point, as many people would like us
to, that these officers were wrong. We'll base our determination on the

     Leo Terrell, the civil rights lawyer hired by Mitchell's son, said
Parks' remarks were "sickening," especially in light of statements by
four eyewitnesses who he says directly contradict the officers.

     "It sounds like he has already made a decision before his own
investigation has even started," Terrell said.

     As he has on other issues, Parks argued that the LAPD accepts too much
blame and too much responsibility for society's problems. He said other
governmental agencies and special interest organizations should help
police address societal concerns, such as the situation of the mentally

     When funds are cut for programs that help the mentally ill, police
often have to deal with the consequences, he said.

     "We're using our criminal justice dollars on mental health," Parks
said. "We should be putting money into mental health to get people off
the streets to give them their medication, hospitalize those that need to
be hospitalized before they become a police problem."

     The chief criticized those who he said did not look after Mitchell,
including her own family.

     "It wasn't right for the three years that the woman laid on a bus
bench," Parks said. "No one was concerned. And it was interesting that
family members hadn't talked to her for over three years."

     Mitchell's son, in an interview with The Times earlier this week, said
he last spoke to his mother about a year ago. He said he repeatedly tried
to get his mother help but she refused to acknowledge her illness. He
said his pleas to the LAPD and other police agencies for help went

     Some advocates for the homeless mentally ill agreed with Parks'
assessment that police all too often are forced to do the work of
specially trained outreach experts.

     But they also said there is a rapidly building groundswell of concern
among outreach experts that the LAPD isn't doing enough to deal with the

     "You need people who are really skilled and able to go out there and
develop relationships with [the homeless mentally ill], and it takes a
lot of time," said Natalie Profant, planning manager for the Los Angeles
Homeless Service Authority.

     Capt. Rich Wemmer, commanding officer of the LAPD's training division,
said officers receive more than 200 hours of training in how to handle
potential problems with the homeless and others they encounter on the

     Officers are taught to gradually escalate the use of force, first by
using "nonlethal" tactics such as verbal commands and control holds, then
"less-than-lethal" tactics, such as chemical agents and batons, before
progressing to "deadly force," or the use of firearms.


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