On Sunday, L.A. police shot and killed an unarmed but belligerent homeless man on San Pedro Street in skid row. As in other recent cases in which police around the country have killed unarmed suspects, it is not entirely clear what actually happened — or what might have happened had the police and the suspect behaved differently.
What is clear is that just as the demonstrations were dying down and protesters were ceasing to appear each day in front of Los Angeles Police Department headquarters, this latest confrontation will revive the questions — and the emotions — that emerged so powerfully after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y.: Are we witnessing a spate of unjustifiable killings by racist or trigger-happy police officers? Or are such tragic situations inevitable from time to time as police officers are thrust into chaotic and life-threatening situations? Even if such situations can't always be avoided, are there policies and procedures that could be put into place to minimize lethal encounters?
Most of what the public knows about Sunday's shooting comes from a bystander's four-minute video and the little information the Police Department has given out. But even in an age of instant uploads, the video doesn't clear up the confusion.
According to LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith, two officers and a sergeant fired their weapons after a struggle for an officer's gun. And in the end, the homeless man, who was black and went by the moniker “Africa,” was dead.
It's extraordinarily challenging to police skid row, which is densely populated with homeless people, many of them suffering from mental illness or addictions, huddled in tents and makeshift sidewalk shelters. Did the police act properly and within their own protocols? And if they are found to have behaved within policy, are they insufficiently trained — or wrongly trained — for defusing such encounters? At one point Sunday, the police, who had been called to the scene on a robbery report, used a Taser on the homeless man — whom they identified as a suspect in the robbery — but it did not subdue him, they said. We need to know why not and what the options are for police who seek to use less-than-lethal force on a suspect who is aggressive and perhaps mentally ill.
This is not the first time the Police Department has been in this situation. In May, police were criticized for using a Taser on a homeless man standing on the roof of a building, causing him to fall off and die. The public is still awaiting the report on that incident. In August, Ezell Ford, a 25-year-old black man with a history of mental illness, was killed by police. He was initially unarmed, but officials said he grabbed an officer's gun. The autopsy, which revealed he had been shot three times, once in the back, was withheld by the LAPD for months before being made public.
This time, it is imperative that the department conduct a thorough review in a timely manner and make it public.
Sunday's shooting comes amid a nationwide discussion of race and policing, and a concern that unarmed black men are being killed by police at a disproportionate rate. The role of race in Sunday's incident is not the only issue that needs to be addressed, but it too is an important one.