LAPD officers who fatally shot homeless man on skid row were legally justified, D.A. says

Prosecutors have concluded that Los Angeles police officers were legally justified in shooting a homeless man last year on skid row, a videotaped killing that attracted international attention and renewed the local debate over interactions between police and L.A.’s homeless population.

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office found that the officers — Sgt. Chand Syed and Officers Francisco Martinez and Daniel Torres — reasonably believed Charly Leundeu Keunang posed a lethal threat during the March 1, 2015 shooting. Their decision was outlined in a 22-page memo obtained by The Times on Thursday.

Prosecutors said video from a body camera worn by the sergeant — when played at a slow speed — showed that Keunang had wrapped his fingers around the butt of a rookie officer’s holstered gun while wrestling with police. The rookie, Joshua Volasgis, did not fire his weapon during the encounter.

The district attorney’s memo said Keunang was “rapidly gaining control” of Volasgis’ firearm. Even if he didn’t have complete control of the gun, prosecutors wrote, it could have easily fired as the struggle continued.

The officers “acted lawfully in self-defense and in defense of others,” prosecutors wrote in the Nov. 9 memo explaining why they were not charging the officers. “Keunang posed a high likelihood of killing officers and civilians at the very instant that he was shot.”

It is rare for prosecutors to charge law enforcement officers in connection with on-duty shootings. The L.A. County district attorney’s office hasn’t pursued charges in such a case since 2000.

The LAPD has not released the body camera footage cited in the district attorney’s memo. Reports from the LAPD, inspector general and now prosecutors say the video shows Keunang grabbing the officer’s holstered gun. But reporters who have privately viewed the recordings have questioned the account. A Times story said the video did not capture key parts of the incident, including whether Keunang grabbed the gun. A story in GQ magazine said Keunang never had the weapon.

Josh Piovia-Scott, an attorney representing Keunang’s family in a federal wrongful-death lawsuit filed this summer, called the decision by prosecutors a “travesty of justice.”  He questioned how police handled the encounter, saying Keunang’s death was unnecessary.

”We had six heavily armed, trained officers and one unarmed homeless man,” he said. “Law enforcement officers are trained to de-escalate situations and to use deadly force — any force, but particularly deadly force — only as a last resort. That obviously did not happen.”

David Winslow, an attorney representing the officers, said there was “nothing inappropriate” about their actions. 

“Anyone who saw the video and knew what it looked like from the officers’ point of view would have known with confidence that there would be no consideration of charges,” he said.

Craig Lally, the president of the union that represents rank-and-file LAPD officers, said the decision showed prosecutors allowed “facts to prevail over politics.”

“While the death of Mr. Keunang is tragic, officers must act when they are being attacked to protect themselves and the public,” he said.

The death of Keunang, a 43-year-old Cameroonian national known on skid row as “Africa,” was seen around the world after a bystander posted video of the shooting on Facebook, drawing millions of views. The recording shows police struggling with Keunang on the ground before at least five gunshots echo loudly.

The shooting underscored the challenges police face when patrolling the sprawling tent encampments of skid row, where mental illness and drug use are common. It also renewed complaints among those who live on skid row and their advocates, who have long accused police of too quickly resorting to heavy-handed tactics.

Nevertheless, after reviewing the video and other evidence, the Police Commission decided earlier this year that the officers did not violate the LAPD’s rules for using deadly force. The panel did, however, fault Volasgis for failing to maintain control of his gun and baton.

The events leading up to Keunang’s death began when someone called 911 and reported an attempted robbery and assault along South San Pedro Street, authorities said. There, the caller identified Keunang as the suspect, telling officers he had also threatened him with a baseball bat.

Keunang became aggressive during the encounter, according to reports from the LAPD’s chief and inspector general made public earlier this year. He clenched his fists and raised his voice, ignoring commands from officers.

According to the memo from the D.A.’s office, Martinez and Syed repeatedly warned Keunang, who was standing at the entrance of his tent, that he would be Tased if he did not move to a nearby wall. Keunang told them, “Let me express myself,” and says Martinez’s name.

At one point, Keunang walked back into his tent, which two sergeants began to pull open. 

“Hey, you gotta come out,” one of the sergeants, Syed, said.

“You’re gonna get Tased. Do you understand?” Martinez said. “You’re gonna get Tased. Get outside.”

“Listen! Listen! Listen!” Keunang replied. “Leave me alone!”

Keunang grabbed what LAPD investigators later described as a cellphone. One officer used a Taser, but it didn't appear to have an effect. 

Instead, according to the D.A.’s memo, Keunang began to spin, swinging his arms before lunging at Martinez. Volasgis, the rookie cop, rushed forward, starting the struggle that would end with the shooting.

A Taser was used on Keunang again. At some point, the rookie officer told investigators, he felt Keunang tug and twist the grip of his gun, nearly pulling it out of the holster.

”He’s going for my gun! He’s going for my gun!” Volasgis yelled, according to the district attorney’s memo. “He’s got my gun!”

Martinez, Torres and Syed then fired, striking Keunang six times.

In the days after the shooting, more than 100 demonstrators marched from skid row to the Police Commission’s weekly meeting, protesting Keunang’s death. Activists continued to say his name at the board’s meetings, along with the names of other people killed by the LAPD.

General Jeff Page, a skid row activist, said Thursday that the killing continues to affect those who live in the encampments. Many residents of skid row are wary — if not scared — of police, he said. They haven’t seen much progress, he added, despite the LAPD’s expansion of training for officers who interact with people who are mentally ill.

“After this shooting happened, there was a momentary pause by LAPD officers,” he said. “But then the chief came out, days later, and basically cleared the officers even before the investigation was concluded. Then it was business as usual.”

“It’s been that way ever since,” he said.

kate.mather@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @katemather

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UPDATES:

6:45 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from an attorney representing Charly Keunang’s family, the police union president and more information about the footage captured by police body cameras.

3:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details from the prosectors’ memo as well as comments from General Jeff Page, a skid row activist.

This article was originally published at 1:35 p.m.

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