Breaking ranks with other police accounts of last year’s controversial police shooting of homeless woman Margaret Mitchell, a veteran LAPD motorcycle officer who watched from across the street as the incident unfolded says he believes the shooting was unwarranted.
Officer John Goines testified during a deposition in a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by Mitchell’s family that he was disturbed by the May 21, 1999, slaying of the 102-pound woman, who had been waving a screwdriver at police. Goines acknowledged, as he has before, that his view of the fatal shot was blocked by a passing car, but said he did witness the events leading up to it and immediately following it.
“I didn’t understand how this whole thing went down the way it did,” Goines said under questioning by attorney Leo Terrell. “I didn’t see how--how come the lady ended up getting shot, and it was disturbing to me.”
Terrell asked the officer whether he considered the shooting “excessive.”
“Yes,” he said, adding later: “I would say that [she] was not an immediate threat.”
In an interview, Goines added that he could not say whether the officer who fired the shot genuinely felt threatened by Mitchell. “My perception of fear is going to be different than that of another officer,” he said.
Because those observations go beyond what police investigators had reported as Goines’ account, the latest statements “raise questions about the department’s review process in this case,” said Los Angeles Police Commission Inspector General Jeffrey C. Eglash. “We will investigate these issues fully and report back to the Police Commission.”
The Mitchell shooting touched off protests by civil rights activists and other LAPD critics, and its investigation by the Police Department has been politically charged, with the city’s Police Commission overruling Chief Bernard C. Parks on the issue of whether it violated Police Department shooting rules. Throughout the debate, most police officers have sided with their colleagues.
As a result, Goines is the first LAPD officer to publicly challenge the police contention that the officer, despite the problems with his tactics, was within his rights to shoot Mitchell.
“It’s a breakthrough in the code of silence,” said Terrell, who took the officer’s deposition on July 12. “He took a tremendous chance. We were all shocked.”
LAPD Cmdr. David J. Kalish called Mitchell’s death “a tragic occurrence and sad for everyone involved” but declined to comment on Goines’ deposition, citing the pending lawsuit. He did, however, add: “Opinions of various witnesses of their perceptions are of less interest to the reviewing authorities than the actual facts.”
Eglash, who became aware of those statements only Thursday, said he will also forward his concerns to the commission’s Rampart Independent Review Panel working group, which is studying officer-involved shootings at the LAPD.
“Officer Goines’ deposition in the Margaret Mitchell case highlights the importance of having thorough, independent civilian oversight and review of officer-involved shootings,” Eglash added.
As part of the commission’s review, Eglash submitted a report in February to the panel in which he concluded that Mitchell did not pose a deadly threat to Officer Edward Larrigan and that therefore the shooting was out of policy. The commission, in a 3-2 vote, agreed with Eglash’s finding.
In doing so, it rejected the recommendation of Chief Parks, who found that Larrigan’s tactics leading up to the shooting were faulty, but that the shooting itself was in policy. Disciplinary action against Larrigan is pending.
One of the issues Eglash raised with commissioners was his concern that LAPD shooting investigators were inaccurately summarizing witnesses’ statements in their police reports.
Goines’ statements in his deposition went far beyond his initial factual observations about the shooting, which LAPD investigators provided to the Police Commission last year.
In that account, Goines acknowledged that a vehicle blocked his view at the precise moment that police say Mitchell lunged at Officer Larrigan, prompting him to fire.
In the deposition, Goines talked about the overall handling of the confrontation leading up to the shooting, and said it never should have happened. The officer said it was clear that Mitchell was a frail, lethargic, mentally ill woman who posed little or no threat to Larrigan and his partner, Kathy Clark.
According to the official police account, Larrigan and Clark, on bicycle patrol, attempted to stop Mitchell as she pushed a shopping cart along a sidewalk near the intersection of 4th Street and La Brea Avenue. The officers said they were planning to investigate whether the cart was stolen.
When the officers ordered Mitchell to stop, the police account continued, she ignored them and began walking rapidly away, reaching into her cart and grasping the handle of what turned out to be a screwdriver.
She stopped at the southwest corner of La Brea and 4th and began screaming obscenities at the officers, according to the official police account. When Larrigan attempted to calm Mitchell, she pushed her shopping cart at him--with the screwdriver in it. But the officer, after blocking it with his foot, pushed the cart--the weapon still in it--back at Mitchell.
Seconds later, police investigators said, Mitchell pulled the screwdriver from a pile of clothes in the cart and held it in a menacing manner, threatening to kill the officers if they came any closer.
The officers prepared to subdue Mitchell with pepper spray, but just then a passing motorist intervened, trying to calm Mitchell himself. Larrigan, fearing the man was in danger, led him away. That distraction, police said, prevented the officers from using nonlethal means to subdue Mitchell.
Shortly thereafter, according to the police account, Mitchell raised her screwdriver and lunged at Larrigan. The officer got into a semi-crouched position and fired a single shot. Mitchell, struck in the chest, died less than an hour later at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, authorities said.
In his deposition, Goines said that Larrigan looked disoriented immediately after the shooting, leading Goines to believe that he may have accidentally discharged his weapon.
“I thought maybe he slipped off the curb,” the officer said in his sworn deposition. “That was my initial thought because I couldn’t see any other reason to use lethal force.”
Goines, assigned to West Traffic Division, confirmed his testimony on the Mitchell shooting in an interview with The Times on Thursday.
He said he disagreed with the LAPD’s determination that the shooting was “in policy,” meaning that the use of deadly force was justified because the officer felt his life was in danger.
But Goines, who said he shared his observations with police investigators, added that he was not surprised when the finding was announced.
“They don’t base their findings solely on what I say,” Goines said.
Goines’ statements are the latest in a series of developments that have cast doubt on the LAPD’s version of the Mitchell shooting.
Two weeks after her death, The Times published a story quoting witnesses who said Mitchell never lunged at Larrigan, as police claimed. Police officials had earlier stated that those same witnesses backed the officers’ version of events.
Terrell, in an interview Thursday, said he was planning to send a copy of Goines’ deposition to the City Council, Mayor Richard Riordan and U.S. Atty. Alejandro Mayorkas.
The document, he said, will be accompanied by a message: “This Police Department has lied to you.”