Grand jury to examine fatal shooting involving Torrance cops tied to racist text scandal

Torrance, Los Angeles, California-Dec. 8, 2021-Torrance Police Headquarters located at 3300 Civic Center Dr., Torrance, California, Dec. 8, 2021. (Los Angeles Times)
Police cruisers parked outside Torrance Police Department headquarters. (Los Angeles Times)
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

A grand jury will consider criminal charges against two Torrance police officers linked to a racist texting scandal who shot and killed a Black man in 2018, according to documents reviewed by The Times.

The grand jury is expected to meet Tuesday to begin hearing evidence in connection with the death of Christopher DeAndre Mitchell, 23. Mitchell was holding an air rifle and seated in a car when he was fatally shot by Officers Anthony Chavez and Matthew Concannon, according to a letter reviewed by The Times and a law enforcement source with direct knowledge of the case.

The source spoke on the condition of anonymity because grand jury matters are secret.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office declined to comment.

Former Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey cleared both officers of wrongdoing in 2018, but the case was one of four her successor, George Gascón, promised to reopen after he took office in 2020 and hired special prosecutor Lawrence Middleton in 2021. It was Middleton's decision to present the case regarding Mitchell's killing to the grand jury, according to the document reviewed by The Times.

Gascón and Middleton, who has declined multiple interview requests, have faced repeated criticism for the special prosecutor's expensive contract and the seeming glacial pace of the investigations of the four cases. Some inside the office have bristled at Middleton potentially overriding work that had been completed. But Monday's news seemed certain to appease activists who have called on Gascón to deliver on one of his central campaign promises.

It was unclear what charges the grand jury would consider, but officers often face prosecutions for murder, manslaughter or assault under color of authority when accused of using their weapons without justification. There is no timetable for the grand jury process, but it would circumvent the need for a preliminary hearing, putting the officers on a swifter path to trial if they are indicted.

In December 2018, Concannon and Chavez pulled up to Mitchell, who was suspected of driving a stolen vehicle, in a Ralph's parking lot in Torrance, according to an earlier district attorney’s office memo clearing the officers of wrongdoing.

The officers parked behind Mitchell, exited their vehicle and yelled, “Police!” Mitchell initially placed his hands on the steering wheel, according to the memo.

The officers repeatedly ordered Mitchell to get out of the car, but he did not comply, according to the report. When they approached him, the officers noticed Mitchell's hands move toward his lap, where Concannon saw what he believed to be a firearm. They opened fire.

The officers described the weapon, later determined to be a “break barrel air rifle,” as “pinched” between Mitchell’s legs, though neither alleged he grabbed it or pointed it at them before they shot him.

Chavez’s attorney, Tom Yu, said the officer "justifiably and in self-defense and in defense of his partner, utilized deadly force on Mr. Mitchell." Yu said the move to seek an indictment years after Lacey cleared his client of wrongdoing was "entirely motivated by politics and due to the campaign promises by Mr. Gascón to his constituents."

"We look forward to defending Mr. Chavez if there are charges brought as a result of the grand jury proceeding," Yu said.

Lisa Houle, Concannon's attorney, said in a statement that her client "was cleared in this shooting by the prior DA’s Office administration. It is unheard of for a case that has already been reviewed and cleared to be reopened several years later."

Concannon and Chavez are among 13 officers The Times has been able to publicly identify as part of a racist texting scandal within Torrance's Police Department. Records reviewed by The Times show the 13 officers sent more than 390 “anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic or transphobic remarks” between 2018 and 2020, according to a district attorney's office report.

In the texts, officers joked about beating and lynching Black suspects, assaulting members of the LGBTQ community, using violence against suspects and lying during an investigation into a police shooting, according to various records reviewed by The Times.

Chavez and Conannon did not appear on a copy of the Torrance Police Department's roster provided to The Times in response to a public records request filed last year. The department repeatedly refused to comment on their employment statuses until Monday, when Houle said Concannon was still employed by the agency.

Sgt. Ron Salary, a police spokesman, confirmed Concannon is still on the department's active roster but would not say why he was missing from the roster previously released to The Times.

The department would not comment on Chavez's job status.

While the previous Times investigation did not turn up specific racist text messages sent by Concannon or Chavez, both were involved in the text thread that was the subject of a district attorney's investigation, according to records reviewed by The Times and multiple sources with knowledge of the probe. Concannon also sent messages that were part of the investigation, those sources said.

The scandal has led prosecutors to dismiss dozens of criminal cases, sparked a California attorney general's investigation into the department and cost the city more than $10 million in lawsuits against the officers linked to the texts.

The scandal came to light after two former officers, Cody Weldin and Christopher Tomsic, allegedly spray-painted a swastika inside a vehicle they had towed as part of an investigation. Search warrants executed to explore whether the two should be charged with a hate crime turned up the offending texts.

Another officer linked to the scandal, David Chandler, has been criminally charged with shooting a mentally ill man in the back.

In the texts, an unidentified officer referred to Mitchell's family using the N-word. In another message, one officer suggests the group should sit in either Chavez's or Conannon's yard and pose like "a [firing] squad” in case protesters arrive.

The district attorney's report detailing the texts is heavily redacted, and it is unclear which of the 13 officers in the scandal sent the texts about Mitchell's family or the shooting.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.