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.*