The Los Angeles Police Commission's inspector general has concluded that police officers who shot and killed homeless woman Margaret Mitchell violated the LAPD's rules on shootings, a determination that contradicts Police Chief Bernard C. Parks' findings and threatens to ratchet up a building conflict between the chief and his civilian bosses.
According to LAPD sources and others, Inspector General Jeff Eglash has written a lengthy report in which he found that civilian witnesses at the scene did not see Mitchell lunge at an officer, as the department says she did. Eglash also determined that the tactics employed by the officer who fired were so bad that they contributed to the shooting itself, those sources said.
Parks has reached far different conclusions. He found that officers used poor tactics leading up to the shooting but that the officer who fired did so out of a legitimate concern for his safety. As a result, Parks recommended administrative discipline for the tactics but found the shooting itself "in policy"--justified.
The result: Police commissioners now are faced with starkly conflicting recommendations, forcing them to choose between the analyses of two high-profile officials or disregard them both and come to their own conclusion.
Meanwhile, officials disclosed Friday that a highly touted district attorney's team whose mission is to go to the scenes of police shootings has begun operating throughout the county in recent weeks but has not reached agreement with the LAPD itself--the very agency it is most intended to scrutinize. Police officials attributed the delay to circumstances, mainly the fact that Parks was out of town this week, and say they expect to join the "roll-out" program soon.
At Parks' direction, Deputy Chief Martin Pomeroy notified prosecutors Friday that the LAPD intends to comply with the new program. Reached in Hawaii, Parks said that after inquiries by The Times, he, Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti and Mayor Richard Riordan had attempted to iron out any confusion in a conference call Friday afternoon. Although Parks said he still has questions about how the roll-out will work, he stressed that he generally supports the program.
Those developments both come as the continuing Rampart police scandal expands, and each has significant implications for the department's management and public image. Interestingly, the issues also are connected in another way: It was outrage over the corruption scandal that prompted county officials to restore the roll-out team, which had been disbanded years earlier.
Mitchell Case Seen as Test for Commission
The conduct of the department and the Police Commission are under the microscope for still another reason: Observers who question the city's ability to get to the bottom of the ever-expanding police scandal see the Mitchell case as an important test of the commission's independence and determination.
"There are a number of current circumstances in which the commission must show its mettle," said Merrick Bobb, a Los Angeles lawyer and expert on policing practices. "Their actions on the Mitchell shooting may very well be a litmus test for how they will handle the Rampart scandal."
Ever since she was shot on May 21, 1999, Mitchell has been at the center of a heated controversy within the LAPD. In a report to the commission last year, Parks concluded that the officer who shot Mitchell made mistakes, but that he acted within LAPD policy, which allows officers to fire their weapons to protect themselves or others from harm.
Although that report has not been released, sources say Parks found that Mitchell, who was pushing a shopping cart along La Brea Avenue, lunged at officers with a screwdriver and that one of the officers stumbled and then fired, killing her.
Department sources say, however, that Eglash has reviewed the LAPD's investigation, re-interviewed some witnesses and come to the conclusion that the officer, Edward Larrigan, used such poor tactics that he should be held responsible for violating LAPD shooting policy.
On Friday, Eglash declined to comment about his conclusions, saying only: "I can confirm that I've done two reports for the commission that are being reviewed in closed session."
Eglash added that his reports look not only at the shooting, but also at related policy issues. "I can't comment on the contents," he said.
According to officials in the Police Department, Eglash has focused on the question of when police tactics are so flawed that they create the circumstances for a shooting. In other words, if an officer makes such serious mistakes that a suspect ends up being shot, Eglash argues that the officer's conduct ought to make the shooting itself a violation of LAPD rules.
The LAPD's manual recognizes that force sometimes is necessary when confronting suspects, but adds: "Force may not be resorted to unless other reasonable alternatives have been exhausted or would clearly be ineffective under the particular circumstances. Officers are permitted to use whatever force that is reasonable and necessary to protect others or themselves from bodily harm."
Eglash's Emphasis Is on Accountability
In essence, Parks' analysis reflects the department's traditional emphasis on the force officers are allowed to use, while Eglash's emphasizes the degree to which officers must be held accountable for making the use of force necessary.
The issue of the roll-out team is less fraught with peril for the commission, but to some observers it too raises questions about oversight of the LAPD and its willingness to accept direction from civilians.
In an interview Friday morning, Garcetti said the department has not signed the protocol that spells out what his prosecutors will do when they go to shooting scenes. That disclosure took City Council members, county supervisors and the mayor's office by surprise--especially when they learned that other agencies, such as the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, have signed the protocol and are working with prosecutors.
"I don't know of any legitimate reason why they wouldn't sign on," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a longtime friend and admirer of Chief Parks who was instrumental in pushing for the return of the roll-out team. "I don't think, at the end of the day, the LAPD will have any choice but to sign."
Until September 1995, prosecutors were dispatched to the scene of every LAPD shooting. The team, which often was kept at a distance by police supervisors, was criticized for failing to provide a genuinely independent review of police shootings. It was disbanded by Garcetti for budget reasons.
Garcetti's Office Seeks Guaranteed Access
The Rampart scandal, which involves allegations of improper shootings, provided the impetus for its return. But this time Garcetti's office is pressing for a set of protocols that would guarantee prosecutors appropriate access to evidence and witnesses. The team began rolling out on Feb. 1, officials said.
Since then, there have been no LAPD shootings, so the confusion has not resulted in mishandling of any cases, but it is one of a growing number of points of contention between Garcetti and Parks.
Spurred by media inquiries, the mayor and others intervened to straighten the matter out Friday afternoon. Late in the day, Deputy Mayor Noelia Rodriguez said Riordan and others were confident that the roll-out program would begin soon.
"A meaningful roll-out program can be an effective tool in ensuring that accurate information is obtained," Police Commission President Gerald Chaleff said. "I am confident that the LAPD will cooperate with the D.A. and the roll-out program will be resumed."