Just the other day, a boy of about ten approached to ask me a question, one heard often by police officers everywhere: “Have you ever shot anyone?” Though I’ve had my share of close calls, I was thankful to be able to answer that I have not. But like all cops, I know every day I strap on the gun may be the day I have to use it. And should that awful occasion arise that I am forced to take a life in order to save my own or someone else’s, who will sit in judgment of my actions? Will it be police professionals who have been trained in the very same policies and tactics as myself, and who themselves may have faced their own life-threatening situations? Or will it be civilians with no police training or experience whatsoever, civilians whose decisions may be influenced by the ever-capricious shifts in political currents?
These are the questions being asked today in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times reported last Tuesday that an LAPD “board of rights,” a disciplinary panel composed of two police captains and a civilian, has absolved an officer in the 1999 shooting of Margaret Mitchell, a slightly built, 55-year-old homeless woman. The news story was accompanied in the same edition by a breathless editorial that called for changes in the way officer-involved shootings are investigated and adjudicated. “The Margaret Mitchell shooting was wrong,” the editorial concludes, “and it’s indefensible to say otherwise.” Here on vivid display was the lordly hauteur regularly found on the editorial pages of the Times and other such liberal papers: We know best, you see, and if you disagree it can only be attributable to some gross defect of character that renders you unfit for polite company. Well, it may mark me as a primitive, but I manage to lift my knuckles up from the floor from time to time, and I have done so if only for as long as required to type these words. And as I do with nearly every editorial that appears in the Times, most especially those pertaining to police work, I do indeed disagree.
Some background: On May 21, 1999, LAPD Officers Edward Larrigan and Kathy Clark were working a bicycle-patrol detail on a busy commercial street about six miles west of downtown Los Angeles. They stopped to talk to Mitchell, who, in the manner of many homeless people, carried her possessions along in a shopping cart appropriated from a local supermarket. Rather than cooperate with the officers, Mitchell shouted at them incoherently and brandished a twelve-inch screwdriver. Moments later she lay mortally wounded on the sidewalk, struck by a single shot from Larrigan’s pistol. She died an hour later at a local hospital.
Mitchell’s death sparked weeks and months of protests, and the atmosphere was of course all the more charged owing to the fact that Mitchell was homeless, mentally ill, and black, each of which groups has its own vociferous advocates. The shooting was investigated by the L.A. County D.A.’s office, the U.S. Justice Department, and a grand jury, all of which eventually cleared Officer Larrigan of any criminal liability. For its part, the D.A.’s office issued a 30,000-word report to explain its decision not to prosecute. But in a typically timid move, the L.A. city council settled a lawsuit by handing over nearly $1 million to Mitchell’s family, the members of which were nowhere to be found while Mitchell was living on the streets and descending into madness, but who nonetheless came out of the woodwork to claim their share of the swag.
Readers of these columns know well that I am no fan of former LAPD Chief Bernard Parks, but to his credit he faced into a political storm and ruled that though the tactics that led to Mitchell’s shooting may have been faulty, the shooting itself was justified by Mitchell’s actions, i.e. her attempt to stab Larrigan with the screwdriver. It seems fair to say that the uproar over Parks’s ruling influenced the subsequent decision by the civilian police commission, which by a 3-2 vote found the shooting to be “out of policy.” Thus, even after months of investigations, the police commission could not unanimously agree on a decision Officer Larrigan had to make in the blink of an eye. Because of the ongoing investigations and pending litigation, it wasn’t until last month that the board of rights at last heard testimony and voted not to impose discipline on Larrigan, who spent these last four years buried in a desk job and left to wonder if he would be fired, impoverished, or even imprisoned for his actions that day.
Thus was illustrated an anomaly in the LAPD’s handling of officer-involved shootings. Though the police commission found the shooting out of policy, the board of rights concluded otherwise, in essence overruling the civilian body charged with overseeing the police department. And this, needless to say, has the enlightened ones over at the L.A. Times in high dudgeon. On Sunday, in a front-page, above-the-fold story running under the ominous headline “LAPD Prevails Over Civilian Overseers,” the Times reported on other instances in which boards of rights reached conclusions more favorable to officers than those reached by the police commission. The story did note, though somewhat dismissively, that a board of rights is the only venue in the shooting-review process in which an officer has the opportunity to present a defense, including testimony from expert witnesses. Police commissioners draw their conclusions based on reports from investigators, reports which an involved officer has no opportunity to challenge until his case is heard by a board of rights. Reacting to the alarm raised by the Times, both LAPD Chief William Bratton and Police Commission President Rick Caruso have called for changes to this system, changes that would give the chief or the commission the final word on the imposition of discipline. “The system makes no sense,” Caruso told reporters last week. “I think it should be disbanded and a new one put in place.”
There is danger lurking here. Police chiefs and commissioners come and go, riding in or out of town with the prevailing political winds, and their decisions are often calculated to satisfy the editorialists at the Times or whichever constituency holds sway at any given moment. But policies should remain consistent, most especially when it comes to an officer’s most crucial, life-and-death decisions. Most police departments have policies similar to the LAPD’s, which says that an officer may use deadly force “[t]o protect himself or others from an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury.” The policy makes no allowances for instances when the assailant is slight of stature, homeless, mentally ill, or a member of this or that ethnic minority.
Caruso is an honorable man, highly accomplished in business, civic, and charitable affairs, but like his fellow commissioners he has never worn the uniform of a police officer. Furthermore, he has lived a life of wealth and privilege: I’m guessing no one has ever tried to shove a screwdriver through his Armani-clad hide. As much as I respect him, I wouldn’t want Caruso or anyone of his background to have the final word on whether I was justified in shooting someone. Such decisions should remain the hands of those who have walked the walk, people who, in the words of a longtime mentor, “know what it’s like to suddenly have your ass on the sidewalk and wonder if you’re going to make it home tonight.”
Yes, there would have been much less controversy had Officer Larrigan been the one to die that day. The police commissioners would have put on their sad faces and attended the funeral, but they would have forgotten Larrigan long before the grass had grown in over his grave. There would have been no call for a change in policy, and there certainly would have been no million-dollar payout for Larrigan’s family or outraged commentary from the Los Angeles Times. But if a police officer knows his fate rests in the hands of those who know little of the dangers he faces, it will only cause him to hesitate in moments of peril. And in police work, he who hesitates is not only lost, he is dead.
— Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.