The 1999 shooting death of Margaret Mitchell, a 55-year-old homeless woman, by LAPD Officer Edward Larrigan looked like a classic example of excessive force. But, in a closed hearing last month, the department’s board-of-rights panel ruled that Larrigan’s actions were “within police policy” and required no disciplinary action at all.

The shooting took place at La Brea Avenue and Fourth Street when Larrigan and his partner, Kathy Clark, both bike-patrol officers, attempted to stop the 5-foot-1, 102-pound Mitchell to find out if her shopping cart was stolen. Mitchell ignored the officers and walked away. The cops tried again, and Mitchell allegedly lunged at Larrigan with a 12-inch screwdriver. Yet, according to police accounts, Larrigan took time to call for backup and considered using pepper spray.

Instead, supposedly afraid for his life, the 27-year-old, physically fit officer shot the small woman fatally in the chest.

With its ruling, the panel disregarded the L.A. Police Commission, which had voted 3-2 that Larrigan’s actions were not warranted. Since the commission is the last word on the subject, according to the L.A. City Charter, many found the situation extremely troubling.

Worse, the panel conducted its hearing in secret, declining to notify Mitchell’s lawyer, Leo Terrell, who contends that he was told specifically that he could attend. (It was Terrell who got the city to pay Mitchell’s family $975,000 in a civil settlement.) “This is an ominous sign of just how little political reform has really melted the inner iceberg of the LAPD,” said Tom Hayden.

Former Police Commissioner Dean Hansell called the panel’s decision “very disappointing,” adding that the commission found even Larrigan’s pre-shooting actions questionable. “At one point Mitchell rolled the cart in Officer Larrigan’s direction,” said Hansell. “Larrigan caught the cart with his foot, then shot it back toward her. He had possession of the cart — which was the point of the matter — and he sent it back at this mentally ill woman. It was only then that she found the screwdriver.”

It also bothered Hansell that Larrigan’s account evolved as the case developed. “When we read the transcripts, we found that the term ‘lunging’ was suggested by the investigator. Larrigan originally used a more neutral term.”

“After spending 150 hours reviewing evidence,” concluded Hansell, “we felt very clear that Margaret Mitchell was not a serious threat to Officer Larrigan or anybody else.”

A cop who witnessed the incident agreed. Officer John Goines, who was across the street when the shooting occurred, told investigators that Larrigan’s actions were simply not necessary. “He said that Mace or a police baton would have been sufficient,” said Goines’ attorney, Bradley Gage. “He was pressured by command staff to change his story. When he refused, he started to have problems in the department.”

Civil rights attorney Connie Rice said that the panel’s decision points to deeply rooted issues within the LAPD culture. “The more seasoned cops will admit privately that it’s an overreaction,” she said. “But the attitude is, ‘We have to back rookies no matter what, because if we don’t, they’ll be afraid to use force, and that might get someone killed.’ In other words, the discipline ends up being hijacked to support the informal police culture, which tends to see everything through the prism of a stage-10 alert.”

The answer, said Rice, is an independent review board, akin to that currently operating at the Sheriff’s Department. “The cops aren’t in the position to ensure the interests of the community and the Constitution,” Rice said. “We need a well-calibrated system of checks and balances for the LAPD. Right now that doesn’t really exist.”

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