New Menace to Society? Police Shootings of Black Women Are the Deadly Consequence Of

Article excerpt

Many mid-city Los Angeles residents affectionately called her Mom and described her as sweet and harmless. Margaret Laverne Mitchell was a homeless, middle-aged, African-American woman who had become a familiar figure on the streets.

These same residents shook their heads in uncomprehending outrage when Mom was gunned down May 21 by Los Angeles police officers. Police claim they stopped to question her about a stolen shopping cart and they shot her when she threatened them with a screw driver.

Their story is hotly disputed by at least three witnesses who say that the officers shot Mom as she walked away. The question in my mind is whether Ms. Mitchell was the victim of stereotyping - not just as a black, but as a black woman. Much has been made in recent years about how black men are stereotyped. But little attention has focused on black women. No matter what conclusion police and investigators ultimately come to regarding the slaying of Mom, as long as she and other black women are typed as deviant, violent, and crime-prone they will continue to be seen and treated by many in law enforcement as the new menace to society. Even if Mitchell did what police allege, how much of a threat could a middle-aged, diminutive woman with a screw driver be? Couldn't the officers have fired a warning shot, radioed for help, or used nonlethal force such as a stun gun, tasers, rubber bullets, tear-gas pellets, pepper spray, or bean bags to subdue her? Mom's slaying might just seem like deadly business as usual for the Los Angeles Police Department. The US Civil Rights Commission concluded in a recent report that the problems of abuse that became a national disgrace with the Rodney King beating still plague the LAPD as well as the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. But her killing brought to five the total of African-American women shot under questionable circumstances by police in Southern California in the past three years. Mom's shooting follows the December slaying of Tyisha Miller by Riverside, Calif., police officers. This unprecedented pattern is a harsh reminder that for many in law enforcement, black women, like black men, are increasingly regarded as menaces to society. That has deadly consequences for black women in how society views and treats them. While much of the media instilled the stereotypes and fear of black men as lazy, violent, crime-prone, and sexual predators, black women were typed similarly. The Miller case in Riverside was a classic example of this. An article in the city's major daily newspaper, the Riverside Press- Enterprise, relied exclusively on the character description by the Riverside Police Department, calling her "aggressive," "assaultive," "a possible gang member," and "mistaken for a man. …