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City to Pay $975,000 in Police Killing of Homeless Woman

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles City Council on Friday approved spending $975,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of Margaret Mitchell, the 102-pound homeless woman fatally shot by a Los Angeles police officer last year.

The city’s civilian Police Commission had ruled that the shooting violated the department’s policies on the use of deadly force.

The settlement approved Friday provides a high-priced capstone to a case that critics said illustrates the LAPD’s inability to handle confrontations with the mentally ill. It also comes as the City Council continues to approve millions of dollars to settle cases stemming from the Rampart Division scandal.

“It is a very untenable place to be,” Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas said after the vote. “We’re losing financial capital, but we’re also losing considerable moral capital.”

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Council members acted to settle the suit in executive session on the advice of attorneys, who warned that a jury might have returned a costlier verdict should the case have gone to trial.

The city attorney’s office, which usually represents the city in lawsuits, recused itself from the case because of the conflict created when the LAPD’s inspector general faulted the performance of officers in the shooting.

The settlement was negotiated by Theresa Patzakis, Mayor Richard Riordan’s general counsel. On Friday, Ben Austin, a spokesman for the mayor, said: “This was a real tragedy for both parties, and we’re grateful to finally put this case and this chapter for Los Angeles behind us.”

The shooting outraged local police activists and advocates for the mentally ill and shook City Hall as it pitted Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, who initially found the incident “in policy,” against the man charged with investigating the department and the Police Commission, which ultimately overruled the chief.

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The sequence of events leading up to the May 21, 1999, shooting began when two bicycle officers on La Brea Avenue stopped to determine whether Mitchell, a 55-year-old mentally ill woman standing just over 5 feet tall, was pushing a stolen shopping cart.

One of the officers, Edward Larrigan, shot Mitchell when she allegedly lunged at him with a 12-inch screwdriver.

Parks found that his officers used poor tactics before the shooting, but that Larrigan had a legitimate fear for his life. Parks urged the Police Commission to find the incident “in policy.”

But Inspector General Jeffrey Eglash found otherwise in his separate investigation, ruling that Mitchell did not pose a deadly threat. The Police Commission found, on a 3-2 vote, that the shooting was out of policy, rejecting Parks’ findings.

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And a veteran LAPD motorcycle officer who witnessed the shooting from across the street said in a deposition that he believed the shooting was unwarranted.

A Times investigation after the shooting found that the LAPD frequently mishandled incidents involving mentally ill or unstable people and that the department’s probes of shootings by its officers were deeply flawed.

Activists and council members called for better training for officers in dealing with the mentally ill, a call echoed Friday by Councilwoman Laura Chick.

“While this settlement brings closure to the lawsuit,” Chick said, “the ongoing issues continue. . . . How do we in L.A. treat and care for our mentally ill?”

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