Homeless Woman's Shooting Reminiscent of LAPD's Bad Old Days FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Wed, 9 Jun 1999 10:31:13 -0700 (PDT)


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http://www.latimes.com/HOME/NEWS/OPINION/t000050745.html
FWD  Los Angeles Times - Sunday, June 6, 1999
     The State

     A SHOOTING REMINISCENT OF THE LAPD'S WORST DAYS

     By Joe Domanick
                   
It unfolded like a dream. A distraught, middle-aged African
American woman suspected of committing a petty crime was approached by
two Los Angeles Police Department officers. Seeing that the woman held a
common but potentially dangerous household implement in her hand, the
officers ordered her to put it down. When she refused and allegedly
threatened them with the object, she was shot and killed.

That's a fair description of what happened to Margaret LaVerne
Mitchell. Last month, the 54-year-old, mentally ill and homeless Mitchell
was wheeling a shopping cart when she was shot dead after allegedly
lunging at one of two LAPD bicycle officers with a 12-inch screwdriver.
But the story isn't hers.

Instead, it is the recounting of the death of Eulia May Love, a
39-year-old South-Central housewife who was killed 20 years ago by a
different pair of LAPD officers in a dispute over a $22.09 unpaid gas
bill. Love, too, had been holding a potentially dangerous household
object, an 11-inch boning knife she had been using to whack at two rubber
trees in her front yard. When the cops approached her, Love, like
Mitchell, reacted irrationally. So intent were the police officers in
getting her to promptly obey their commands that two minutes and 27
seconds after their arrival, she lay dead with eight bullet wounds.

But the similarities between Love and Mitchell's killings don't end
there.

The best-case scenario for the killing of Love, for example, was that
officers believed their lives were threatened and used poor judgment in
not trying to calm her down or call for backup. The worst case was that
the officers quickly grew annoyed at Love screaming at them and simply
shot and killed her because she was challenging them. "Even if you take
the officers' version at face value," former LAPD Assistant Chief David
D. Dotson says, "Eulia Love was an incident where the officers did a
terrible job of dealing with her." The Los Angeles Police Commission's
report on Love's death came to the same conclusion.

It appears that the officer who shot and killed Mitchell did a
similarly terrible job. Clearly, there is no good reason for the woman to
be dead for what was, at most, a petty crime.

Of course, as Police Chief Bernard C. Parks urged at a news conference
last month, the officers' actions should not be judged until all the
facts are collected. Regrettably, Parks didn't stop there. He went on to
forcefully defend the officers involved in the shooting and bitterly
condemned department critics. "From what we're seeing so far," said
Parks, "these officers, at this point, do not appear [to have] done
anything wrong. We are not going to, for political expediency or for
community concern, just declare that these officers are wrong or make
them a scapegoat. These offices are . . . responding to spontaneous
events, and they are being asked to do something well beyond the skill of
anyone.

"The same people who would criticize law enforcement for stereotyping
them," continued the chief, "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' comments were extraordinary not just because of their defiant
and petulant tone but also because of their flagrant disregard for recent
LAPD history. One would have thought that after all that Los Angeles and
its Police Department have been through the past 20 years, that a veteran
officer like Parks would have been far more sensitive to the situation
and mindful of the potentially explosive consequences of off-the-cuff
comments.

How, for example, could the chief have forgotten the LAPD's shooting
history during those years? Not only did the shootings themselves enrage
segments of the population, but the official explanations given for them
were frequently condescending, dismissive and scornful of the victim. It
was precisely that attitude that eventually provided the fuel for the
firestorm of criticism that followed Love's slaying. But it was criticism
that was ignored.

The department's shooting policy remained essentially the same, though
shootings began to be investigated more thoroughly. Nevertheless, unarmed
people continued to be either shot or choked to death for wielding such
items as a liquor decanter, wallet, sunglasses, gloves, hair brush,
silver bracelet, typewriter, belt, key chain and even a bathrobe. Parks
was working his way up the ranks when all these incidents took place.
Yet, he still acts as if his department's actions are above reproach. In
this, Parks is very much like his predecessors as chief, William H.
Parker, who established the LAPD's once unassailable power in Los
Angeles, Ed Davis, under whom Parks came of age as an officer and whom he
greatly admires, and Daryl F. Gates, who viewed the LAPD as a tiger views
its hunting ground.

Throughout the controversy following the Love shooting, for example,
Gates never went off message. He described the incident as "tragic," but
maintained that there was not "one single good thing" that came out of
the killing and subsequent investigation. Despite the Police Commission's
condemnation of the officers' behavior, Gates attacked the press,
vigorously defended the officers' conduct and applied minimal
disciplinary action. Parks risks falling into the same defensive trap if
he clings to his original remarks on the Mitchell shooting.

Just when, ironically, the LAPD has been training officers in
nonlethal-use-of-force techniques. Some of these techniques previously
were unavailable to officers in threatening circumstances. They include
the use of disabling rubber bullets and pepper spray. In the early 1990s,
pepper spray was used about 30 times a year to subdue combative suspects.
More recently, its use has risen sixteenfold. At the same time, baton use
is way down. In the early 1990s, batons were used about 500 times a year.
Today, they are employed about 30 times a year. That's a positive sign in
terms of reducing injuries.

Moreover, shootings have been going down, not up, since 1992, most
radically since Parks became chief in 1996. In 1992, the year of the
riots, 21 people were killed and 54 wounded by police gunfire. A year
later, the number was 15 killed, 48 wounded. In 1998, it dropped to 11
killed and 14 wounded, and for the first five months of this year, only
four people have been killed and four wounded by police fire.

In all likelihood, when all the facts are collected and investigated,
the shooting of Mitchell will be found to fall within LAPD guidelines.
That shouldn't be good enough. Instead, Parks should acknowledge what the
public already knows, that the shooting of Mitchell should have been
avoided and that any explanation to the contrary defies common sense.
Short of that, Parks only serves to remind us all of the bad old days.

[Joe Domanick Is the Author of "To Protect and to Serve: Lapd's Century of
War in the City of Dreams."]

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