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Jewish World ReviewOct. 25, 1999/15 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Larry Elder

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A tale of two shootings -- A LOS ANGELES POLICE OFFICER, earlier this year, shot and killed a 54 year-old, black, homeless and, apparently, mentally ill woman. Two officers observed Margaret Mitchell pushing a shopping cart down the street, and stopped to question her as to the ownership of the cart.

Mitchell pulled out a screwdriver and appeared to threaten the officers. One cop fell down, then, discharged his revolver, striking Mitchell once and killing her.

The papers promptly played up the race angle, describing one officer as a white woman and the other as an Asian man. And, newspapers talked about Mitchell's small stature, 5'1", 102 pounds.

Predictably, the fit hit the shan, and "activists" turned this into a race issue.

A civil rights lawyer representing the homeless woman's son called the subsequent police investigation a "whitewash" and a "cover-up." The Los Angeles Police Commission launched an investigation, and the City Council expressed concern.

The question of whether the officers properly used lethal force certainly deserves consideration. The LAPD chief Bernard Parks (also black) called the shooting justified, arguing that a screwdriver poses a deadly threat to officers who can and should use whatever force necessary to defend themselves. Yet, one legitimately questions whether two cops must employ lethal force to disarm a 5'1", 102 pound, mentally ill homeless woman wielding a screwdriver.

But, for the activists, the issue goes far deeper than under what circumstances may officers use lethal force. The issue, to them, becomes whether the cops dealt with Ms. Mitchell differently because of her race.

Fast-forward to a couple of weeks ago. A homeless man entered a Sunset Strip coffee shop, mumbling incoherently, and screaming obscenities. He carried a hatchet and a butcher knife. (Cops later found another knife.)

Several patrons ran out of the coffee shop as the 37-year-old man took a seat. Four sheriff's deputies arrived, and, after escorting a couple of other patrons out of the shop, ordered the man to put down the butcher knife. (They did not, apparently, see the hatchet.)

After repeated warnings, the police fired pepper spray at the man, causing him to bend down on the floor. But he suddenly stood up, threatening the officers again with the knife. Three deputies opened fire, striking the man, according to the papers, "several times." He died.

The following day, the local news outlets ran a small story. No civil rights activists yelled. No homeless activists demanded an investigation.

The Los Angeles Police Commission put out no statement. The L.A. police chief held no press conference. Why? The homeless man was white.

Note the similarities between this and the case of Margaret Mitchell. Both homeless, both apparently mentally deranged, both possessing either a screwdriver, or in the case of the homeless man, a hatchet and two knives.

Now note the lack of similarity in coverage. In the case of the homeless woman, the newspapers immediately informed us about her race, her physical stature, and the sex and ethnicity of the officers involved. In the case of the homeless man, the papers gave no description of his stature, and did not describe his race nor the gender or ethnicity of the four sheriff's deputies involved. The papers did not even print a specific number of rounds fired! (When, several months ago, the police shot a 19-year-old Riverside, California, black girl, we promptly learned that the cops shot 24 times, striking her 12.)

What does this say? It tells us that the academy trains cops to use whatever force necessary to repel a suspect who poses a lethal threat. Many objects, other than guns, meet this definition. By all means, let's reconsider whether we want cops to automatically shoot to stop a mentally deranged person with a screwdriver or a knife. Let's ask why the cops questioned a homeless woman about her cart in the first place. Did they expect her to whip out a receipt? We can, and should, revisit police tactics.

But we do ourselves and the community a disservice if we raise these issues only when the suspect is black. Playing the race card works. The activists get attention. It sells newspapers, and excites reporters with their "minorities-under-siege" mentality. Yet this doesn't advance the ball.

While understanding the difficulty, danger, and pressure of cop-on-the-street decision making, the public properly wants the police to respond in an appropriate, measured way, depending upon the threat. In the cases of the black homeless woman and the white homeless man, however, activists and the media tell us that, above all, race matters.

But only when they want it to.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate