The Los Angeles Police Commission ruled Tuesday that officers were justified in shooting a homeless man last year in a controversial, video-taped killing on skid row, but faulted another officer who shot and killed an unarmed man in Burbank days later.
The officers did not violate the LAPD's policy on using deadly force after Charly Leundeu Keunang, a 43-year-old man known as Africa along skid row, reached for a rookie patrolman's holstered gun during a struggle March 1, according to the commission's ruling.
Keunang's death garnered international attention after a bystander posted a dramatic video of the shooting to Facebook. The recording of his death became the latest in a catalog of video that has left police shootings under intense scrutiny.
Some homeless-rights advocates sharply criticized the decision by the commission and the LAPD to find the shooting within policy.
“Obviously there's a disconnect in terms of what we're seeing and what they're deciding,” said General Jeff Page, a skid row activist who attended Tuesday's commission meeting.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said the shooting — along with other incidents — prompted his department to reexamine how officers are trained to interact with people who have mental illnesses. He noted the LAPD is expanding teams that pair officers with mental health professionals to better respond to “calls of crisis” like the one involving Keunang.
“This one was obviously made more difficult by the times we live in and by the outcome — which was sad, certainly,” Beck said, referring to other high-profile police shootings. “But I also recognize how hard police officers' jobs are. And they have a right to defend themselves.”
In the other shooting, the commission found that Officer Brian Van Gorden violated LAPD policy when he killed Sergio Navas. Navas was shot four days after Keunang, but the circumstances surrounding his death were overshadowed by the skid row incident.
Officers tried to stop Navas after they spotted him speeding in a gold Mercury Sable in Toluca Lake, but the 35-year-old took off toward Burbank, according to a report Beck sent the commission.
Six minutes later, Navas came to an abrupt halt on National Avenue, a dead-end street. The officer who was driving the police SUV told investigators he tried to stop behind Navas' car, but was driving too fast and had to veer alongside the Sable to avoid hitting it, the report said.
Navas then got out of the car, the report said. The officer who was sitting in the passenger seat told investigators that Navas slammed the Sable's door and turned to face him. At that point, the officer said, he thought Navas was “trying to trap me in the car” and “ambush me,” according to the report. The officer said he couldn't see Navas' hands, the report said.
“He wasn't trying to run. He was facing right at me. That's when I thought, I was like, this guy is going to try to shoot me,” the officer told
investigators. “I didn't want to wait around and find
The commission agreed with Beck's conclusion that an officer with similar training and experience “would not reasonably believe Navas' actions presented an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury.” The board faulted both officers for their tactics leading up to the shooting.
Van Gorden remains on administrative duty. His attorney, Gary Fullerton, defended the officer's actions, saying he was in fear for his life.
“The officer was face-to-face with the suspect and believed he was going to shoot him,” Fullerton said. “If you wait, there's a good chance you're a dead man.”
A lawyer representing the Navas family in a lawsuit against the city said the commission's finding could help shift the perception that the panel gives officers wide latitude when considering police shootings.
“That provides hope,” attorney Dale Galipo said.
But that sentiment wasn't shared by some of those who had criticized the killing of Keunang.
The video of Keunang's death, which drew millions of views, helped renew long-standing complaints from skid row residents and advocates who say police use heavy-handed tactics against a population plagued by mental illness and drug use.
Police Commission President Matt Johnson said the board's analysis of the shooting was “deliberate, thoughtful and compassionate” based on an investigation that included interviews with more than a dozen witnesses, DNA analysis and video from police body cameras. He called the shooting “nothing short of a tragedy.”
Reports from Beck and Inspector Gen. Alex Bustamante summarizing the investigation described an intense struggle between Keunang and the officers, who went to South San Pedro Street after someone called 911 and reported a robbery. When the officers arrived, the reports said, they were told that Keunang had also threatened the caller with a baseball bat.
Keunang became aggressive during the encounter, clenching his fists and raising his voice, according to the reports. Recordings from body cameras worn by two of the officers, the inspector general's report said, show Keunang ignoring one officer's commands and repeating, “Let me express myself.”
The officers repeatedly warned Keunang he would be Tased if he did not calm down, the reports said.
At one point, Keunang walked back into his tent. Two sergeants pulled the tent open as Keunang grabbed a cellphone from inside. One officer then used a Taser, the reports said, but it didn't appear to have an effect.
Instead, Keunang charged an officer and began swinging his arms, the reports said. One officer punched Keunang in the face, and he was taken to the ground. A Taser was used on him again.
At some point, a rookie officer said, he felt Keunang grab his holstered pistol. “He's got my gun,” the officer yelled. “My gun, he's got my gun.”
One officer opened fire. When the other officers heard the gunshot, they said, they believed Keunang had control of the weapon.
“I firmly believed that this suspect had shot an officer,” one said. “It was very — very quick.”
Portions of the shooting were captured by several cameras, including bystanders' cellphones and body cameras worn by a sergeant and one officer.
That video evidence showed Keunang's hand grabbing the top and grip of the officer's gun, the reports said. One video showed Keunang's hand “holding onto” the gun as it was “substantially removed” from the holster, the inspector general's report said.
A coroner's report showed Keunang was shot six times, including twice by a gun pressed against his body. The autopsy also showed he had meth in his system.
Although the Police Commission determined the officers were justified in firing their weapons, it decided in a 3-2 vote to fault the rookie officer — who did not pull the trigger — for his “failure to maintain control” of his pistol and baton.
Redacted versions of reports made public Tuesday did not identify the officers. But the LAPD previously identified the three who opened fire as Sgt. Chand Syed and Officers Francisco Martinez and Daniel Torres. All three have returned to the field, according to an LAPD spokeswoman.
Dan Stormer, an attorney representing the Keunang family in a wrongful death lawsuit against the city, criticized the LAPD for not reaching out during the investigation, saying he believes he knows of witnesses to whom police have not talked.
“This was a police coverup, not a police investigation,” he said.
The district attorney's office has yet to decide whether to bring criminal charges against any of the officers.
Navas and Keunang were among 21 people fatally shot by on-duty LAPD officers in 2015.
After the commission announced its decisions, about a dozen activists gathered outside police headquarters in downtown L.A., chanting, “Charly Africa. Charly Africa.”
Page, the skid row activist, said the panel's actions would serve only to widen the rift between the homeless population and city officials trying to bring services to them.
“It's worse than reinforcing — it creates an even stronger divide,” he said.
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