In a little over 24 hours this weekend, police officers fatally shot two people in South L.A.: an 18-year-old man they said turned toward them with a gun in his hand and another who allegedly pointed a realistic-looking replica at police.
After protests, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck on Monday displayed images of the weapons and said the officers had feared for their lives.
But in a time of heightened scrutiny over how officers use force, particularly against African Americans, police are finding a gulf between what many officers consider a justified shooting and the views of some protesters and residents.
The shootings came after several weeks of controversial police killings across the country, including in Charlotte, Tulsa and El Cajon, all of which were at least partly captured on video. The weekend’s shootings in Los Angeles inspired protests that stretched from South L.A. to the mayor’s Windsor Square home and the LAPD’s downtown headquarters.
“In the black community, it’s not about individual shootings — and the police don’t understand why,” said Connie Rice, a prominent African American civil rights attorney who has advised Beck. “It’s about the whole nation, the buildup … more than a century of what the community has experienced as accumulated abuses at the hands of law enforcement.”
Building trust among black Angelenos has been a top priority for the LAPD since the riots that erupted 24 years ago after four officers were acquitted in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King. Even some of the LAPD’s toughest critics admit the department has made strides since then.
Los Angeles, however, has not been immune to the national outcry over police shootings. Critics have rallied against controversial killings by officers in South L.A., Venice Beach and skid row. This summer, activists camped outside City Hall for more than a month to protest the deadly police shooting of a woman who carried a knife.
On-duty LAPD officers have shot fewer people this year than during 2015, but a higher proportion of those shootings have been fatal, according to a Times analysis. On-duty officers have shot 20 people this year, killing 16, or 80%. Last year, officers killed 21 of the 36 people shot, about 58%. Over the last decade, fatal shootings have hovered between 12 and 26 annually.
All of the people fatally shot this year were armed with either a gun, a replica gun or some other weapon, such as a knife or a pair of scissors, according to initial reports from the LAPD. Last year, 12 of the 21 people killed were armed with either a firearm, a replica or some sort of knife.
Lou Turriaga, a director of the union that represents rank-and-file LAPD officers, questioned what alternative officers have when faced with a firearm. Two LAPD officers have been wounded by gunfire this year, one in Boyle Heights and another in the Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts.
“If it was your loved one that these suspects were pointing a gun at — your son, your daughter, your wife — what would you have our police officers do during those moments?” Turriaga said.
Plenty, according to activists and those who knew Carnell Snell Jr., the black 18-year-old shot and killed on 107th Street on Saturday afternoon. Many have questioned the police account, including whether Snell had a gun. Even if he did, some said, police should have tried to use a Taser or bean-bag shotgun before pulling the trigger.
“It’s like, what are you guys going to train for?” said Tyquise Lazenby, a 28-year-old friend of Snell’s. “You guys have non-lethal weapons and you’re not using them at all.”
Saturday’s deadly shooting of Snell became the latest local touchstone in the national debate about policing and how officers use force, particularly against African Americans.
Beck told reporters Monday that officers were working near 108th Street and Western Avenue about 1 p.m. when they spotted a light blue Nissan that had paper plates. The plates didn’t match the year of the car, Beck said, causing officers to think it may have been stolen.
As the officers watched the vehicle, Snell, sitting in the back seat, looked toward them, then ducked “as if to hide from them," Beck said.
The officers started to follow the car, which slowed down, Beck said. As officers activated their lights and sirens, he said, the car slowed more and Snell got out, “holding his waistband as if he was supporting something.”
Thinking Snell was holding a gun, the officers chased him, Beck said. At some point during the 200- to 300-yard pursuit, the chief said, the officers saw Snell pull out a gun and hold it in his left hand.
They chased him to a driveway in the 1700 block of 107th Street, where Beck said Snell turned toward them, the gun still in his hand. Police opened fire.
Snell died at the scene.
Beck said a .40-caliber handgun was found “no more than five feet away” from Snell’s body. The gun was fully loaded, Beck said, indicating it wasn’t fired.
The officers did not have body cameras, the chief said, but a video from a nearby business “clearly shows” Snell running with the gun in his hand.
Beck acknowledged the anger surrounding the weekend’s shootings and said he believed some of the reaction has been compounded by other police killings around the country.
“We have all seen police-involved shootings that defy justification in other municipalities. I have seen them where I am at a loss to understand why,” he said. “I think that affects what happens on the streets of Los Angeles.”
After Snell’s death, scores of people gathered near where he was shot. Some shouted profanities at officers. One man complained about police helicopters and sirens keeping him up at night. Others said they were tired of being repeatedly stopped by officers — “they don’t do that in Beverly Hills,” one man said.
Graffiti covered buildings near the intersection. “Rest well Carnell,” one message read. “LAPD” was written next to his name, the letters crossed out with an X.
On Sunday, during a second night of protests, news spread of another deadly police shooting in South L.A. Coroner’s officials have not yet identified the person killed, described by police as a man between the ages of 18 and 22.
About 5 p.m., gang enforcement officers were investigating a report of a man with a gun near 48th Street and Ascot Avenue. The officers spotted someone matching that description — a Latino man with a gray sweater and black pants — and began to approach him, Beck said.
The man then turned and pointed a handgun at the officers, the chief said, prompting police to open fire. Paramedics took the man to a hospital, where he died.
The gun, Beck said, turned out to be a replica weapon, with its orange tip covered by black paint or pen.
Those officers were wearing body cameras, Beck said. The chief watched the video Monday morning, saying it “clearly supports” the officers’ accounts.
Tiffany Peterson, 45, said she watched Sunday afternoon’s shooting from a window in her family’s home across the street from Ascot Elementary School. Peterson said she saw the man run down the block and stop when officers got out of their car. The man appeared to put his arms by his side, though Peterson said she could only see him from his waist up. She said she did not see him with a gun but could not see his hands. A parked vehicle partly obstructed her view of what happened, she said.
One of the officers fired without warning, she said.
“They jumped out of the car and they didn't tell him to freeze or nothing,” Peterson said Monday. “They just shot him.”
She said police fired again when the man was on the ground.
Peterson was among a group of people who marched Monday evening from the scene of the shooting to the steps of the LAPD's Newton station, briefly snarling traffic along Central Avenue. The group repeatedly chanted for authorities to release the names of both the man who was killed and the officers who shot him.
A few police officers watched the demonstration from the building's lobby, but no arrests were made.
Beck said the body camera footage “clearly refutes” reports that the man was shot while on the ground.
“That did not happen,” he added.
An LAPD spokesman said the department had “no plans” to make the video from the body cameras or the business public. In the past, Beck has said he generally would not release recordings, citing the privacy of people captured on the footage and the need to protect the integrity of investigations. On Monday, Beck said he, the Police Commission and the district attorney are discussing the possibility of releasing video and other evidence in “the right way at the right time.”
As Beck addressed a room full of reporters, a crowd of protesters marched into the lobby of the LAPD’s downtown headquarters. Their chants – “Let us in!” – could be heard as the chief spoke.
Police ultimately declared an unlawful assembly inside the lobby, telling the group of about 25 people to leave or risk arrest. Protesters chanted Snell’s name and demanded Beck’s firing before officers formed a line and slowly moved them out of the building.
Three people were arrested, the LAPD said. Police arrested four people the night before during a protest not far from where Snell was killed.
Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, was among those arrested.
“Carnell Snell was an 18-year-old who was somebody’s child,” she said after she was released from jail. “He deserved to live. He deserved to see his life beyond his 18th birthday.”
Times staff writer Joseph Serna contributed to this report.
8:05 p.m.: This article was updated with additional background about LAPD shootings and reaction from South L.A. residents and activists.
3:30 p.m. This article was updated with additional reaction from South L.A. residents.
1:05 p.m. This article was updated with additional details from Beck’s news conference and comments from attorney Connie Rice and people who live in the neighborhoods where the shooting occurred.
This article was first published at 1:05 p.m.