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Man went for gun during 'brutal' skid row struggle, LAPD chief says

Investigators seek additional video in fatal shooting of a man on skid row by LAPD officers. #LAPDShooting

An enhanced version of a video recording of L.A. police officers fatally shooting a homeless man on skid row Sunday appears to show the man's hand reaching in the direction of an officer's waistband.

A Times review of the video shows the officer quickly pulling away at that moment. Then, three of his colleagues open fire on the man.

It was difficult to determine whether the man's hand actually touched the officer's weapon. 

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, in a news conference Monday, said evidence supported initial reports that the man reached for an officer's holstered pistol. The gun's slide was partially pulled back and the magazine dislodged, he said.

"This is indicative of a struggle over the weapon," he said.

The Times reviewed a second video, shot from a security camera at the nearby Union Rescue Mission. It also shows the incident but at a slightly greater distance than the first video, which was posted on Facebook but has since been taken down.

The rescue mission video offers more insight into what happened before police arrived. The video shows the man killed by police flipping another homeless man’s orange tent off the curb with the occupant inside. Paramedics arrive a short time later to treat the man in the tent, the video shows. The police arrive soon after that.

Beck said Monday that the officers involved in the shooting were part of the Safer Cities Initiative -- an LAPD task force specifically focused on skid row -- and were "specially trained in dealing with homeless people and mental health issues." Some of the officers involved had undergone the department's "most extensive mental illness training," which he described as a 36-hour course.

The LAPD said the officer whose gun appeared to be grabbed was a probationary officer who had spent “just under a year” assigned to the Central Division, Cmdr. Andrew Smith said.

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LAPD Sgt. Barry Montgomery noted that there were at least two surveillance cameras mounted on buildings at the scene.

During a press gathering at City Hall, Mayor Eric Garcetti said the shooting death of a homeless man by Los Angeles police officers happened in a "fast-moving situation" and asked the public to withhold judgment until an investigation is completed.

"I don't think you or I should judge tactics or whether a situation was done right or wrong before an investigation is done,'' he said.

The mayor confirmed that two officers were wearing body cameras that were activated during the incident. Garcetti said he had not yet viewed the footage and cautioned that it might not contain definitive evidence.

"This will be one element that will strengthen the investigation, but it will not by itself be the sole determination," he said.

Beck said the body camera footage “offers a unique perspective,” but said “it would not be proper” to publicly release the recordings because of the ongoing investigation.

“At the end of the investigation into this officer-involved shooting, unlike the vast majority of my peers in law enforcement, we will release the complete investigation through the inspector general’s office,” Beck said. “If there is a criminal proceeding in this or if there’s a civil proceeding in this, we will make all evidence available through those proceedings.”

In the first video, five shots can be heard. Two officers and a sergeant fired their weapons, Smith said.

The man, whose identity had not been released, was pronounced dead at the scene by Los Angeles Fire Department paramedics. Beck said two officers were injured.  Both were treated and released, though Beck said one was at home recovering from an injury that required crutches.

The homeless man went by the name "Africa."

Andy Bales, president of the Union Rescue Mission, said he believed the man got his nickname after telling people he was an immigrant from an African nation.

Africa lived near the mission and helped employees “clean up every day,” Bales said. But on occasion he lashed out, he added.

"One day, he came flying out of his tent and knocked some stuff out of the hands of passersby," Bales said. He said that police did not arrest him at the time.

“The people on the street are in an untenable position and that puts the officers in an untenable position when it comes to policing,” Bales said.

The incident that led to the shooting began Sunday around noon when someone called to report a robbery in the 500 block of San Pedro Street.

Two officers and a supervisor arrived on scene and contacted a victim who directed them to the man who was later shot, Beck said.

When officers approached the man, he "refused to comply with the officers’ commands and then began to fight with them,” Beck said.

The officers attempted to use a Taser, but Beck said the device “appeared to have little effect” as the man “continued to violently resist” police. The man dropped to the ground, Beck said, and at one point the man “forcibly grabbed one of the officer’s holstered pistols.”

It was "a very intense situation and a brutal, brutal fight," he said.

Police opened fire. The man, whose name has not been formally released by authorities, was pronounced dead by paramedics at the scene.

The video also shows two officers in the foreground grappling with and handcuffing a woman who had picked up a dropped police nightstick.

An angry crowd gathered immediately after the gunfire, as police cordoned off the scene and ordered onlookers to back away.

One witness can be heard complaining that there had been at least six officers to handle the situation and that the mortally wounded man had been unarmed.

"Ain't nobody got no … gun!" he shouts.

"That man never was a threat," said Lonnie Franklin, 53, who said he was across the street when the shooting occurred. "The amount of officers present at the time could have subdued him."

It was witnesses who identified the dead man by his street name and said Africa had been living in a tent on skid row for a few months after spending a long stretch in a mental health facility.

The LAPD has struggled for years to effectively police downtown's expansive skid row, which is a frequent destination for people with severe mental illnesses.

"We have to deal with the aftermath of a system that's failed," Officer Deon Joseph, a 16-year skid row beat cop, said Sunday.

Police Commission President Steve Soboroff said Sunday evening that he was watching the video repeatedly, trying to hear exactly what the officers said to the man.

"My heart just started pounding just watching it," Soboroff said. "I feel the adrenaline. These situations are just so horrific."

Soboroff said a key issue would be whether the man did try to grab the officer's gun. Otherwise, he said, it's unclear what might have prompted the use of deadly force.

"To me, that would be the only explanation that something would happen that quickly," Soboroff said. "It escalated right in front of our eyes."

Soboroff said the LAPD, the independent inspector general and the district attorney's office would each investigate the shooting "very, very carefully."

"Of course, I would encourage people not to rush to judgment. It's not fair to anybody. It's not fair to the family of the victim or the victim or the officers," he said. "We'll find out what happened."

Last May, a mentally ill homeless man named Carlos Ocana died after falling from a rooftop after officers shocked him with a Taser. The death remains under investigation.

According to a Times data analysis, there have been 12 fatal officer-involved incidents in downtown Los Angeles since 2000. There were none in 2014 and one in 2015 before Sunday's violence.

People who witnessed Sunday's shooting described a chaotic scene leading up to the events captured on the video.

Ceola Waddell was about 20 feet away from Africa's tent, when he said he saw a police car approach the man's home and then an officer "shake it like a rag doll." When Africa stepped out of the tent, police told him to get down, Waddell said. That's when one of the officers fired his Taser at the homeless man. But “Africa”  did not stay down, Wadell said Monday.

"He got back up and it was four shots -- pow, pow, pow, pow!" said Waddell, a 58-year-old who is originally from Memphis, Tenn., who has been living on the streets for 10 years.

One homeless man who identified by his nickname “Juju” said he was friends with “Africa,” whom he said he last saw no more than 30 minutes before the shooting.

He said the deceased homeless man was also known as “Cameroon,” for his home country. Juju said they had been chatting about politics the last time they spoke.

"They did not have to kill my friend," Juju said.

He said his fellow homeless friend’s problems with police were nothing new. There were nearly daily arguments between Africa and police officers over taking down his tent, Juju said.

"He would say, 'Ticket me. Give me my day in court,'" he said.

But despite his run-ins with law enforcement, Juju said Africa was a generally peaceful man. When Juju's tent was stolen, Africa lent him blankets and made sure he had food to eat, Juju said.

"He was generous," he said. "He lived in a tent, but he was content."

Dennis Horne, 29, said Africa had been fighting with someone inside his tent, one of many that line streets in the area.

When Africa refused to comply with a police order to come out of the tent, officers used a stun gun and dragged him out, Horne said. The officers tackled Africa, forcing him onto his back on the sidewalk.

"It's sad," Horne said. "There's no justification to take somebody's life."

Jose Gil, 38, said he saw Africa swinging at the police before one of the officers started shouting that the man was going for his gun.

Ina Murphy, who lives in an apartment nearby, said Africa had arrived in the area about four or five months ago. He told her he had recently been released after spending 10 years in a mental health facility, Murphy said.

Another area resident, whose driver's license identified him as Booker T. Washington, said police had come by repeatedly to ask Africa to take down his tent.

People are allowed to sleep on the streets from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. but are supposed to remove their tents during the daytime, under a court agreement.

"This man got shot over a tent," Washington said.

A group of L.A. civil rights leaders urged the Police Commission on Sunday night to hold a special hearing on the use of force by officers on skid row.

Dozens of people gathered Sunday night in Pershing Square to protest the shooting.

Yannick Babou, 34, a street vendor who works in skid row, said he was selling cookies about a block from where the gunfire erupted Sunday.

"I'm not anti-police. I think we need police in society," Babou said. "But I think we need to hold police accountable when they do something wrong."

At the scene, a lone orange tent stood near a tree where two bouquets and two candles formed a memorial. A broken bat lay behind the candles.

"RIP 'Cameroon' rest in peace Africa brother" a cardboard sign reads.

As a police car pulled up to the vigil site, one homeless person shouted, "Murderers!"

Twitter: @geholland @katemather, @parviniparlance@lacrimes

Times staff writers Jack Dolan, Matt Hamilton and Armand Emamdjomeh contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

3:07 p.m.: Updated with comments from Mayor Eric Garcetti.

1:41 p.m.: Updated with Chief Beck's news conference.

12:34 p.m.: Updated with additional details.

11:15 a.m.: Update includes information on the enhanced video.

9:55 a.m.: This article has been updated with a scene from where the shooting took place.

9:17 a.m.: This article has been updated with comments from a homeless man who knew the man shot by police.

8:53 a.m.: This story was updated with comments from witness Ceola Wadell.

8:26 a.m.: The article has been updated with comments from Andy Bales, who runs the Union Rescue Mission.

5:03 a.m.: This article has been updated with the emergence of a second video of the shooting.

 

This article was originally published at 11:43 p.m. on March 1

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