Authorities say the fatal police shooting of a 46-year-old man nicknamed “Uncle Su’e” in North Long Beach was necessary to subdue a violent suspect who was brawling with an officer and had grabbed his baton.
But neighbors and relatives described it as an unwarranted assault on a shirtless, unarmed man as he lay face down on a sidewalk.
On this both sides agree: Many in the largely Samoan enclave are deeply angry over the death of Roketi Su’e on Saturday.
Police said a hostile crowd of about 40 people surrounded the two officers involved, yelling and threatening them, and that the officers called for backup, concerned that the crowd would turn on them.
The crowd dispersed but tensions in the neighborhood remained inflamed on Sunday.
“He had no shirt on. He didn’t have a weapon. He never carried a weapon,” said Su’e’s niece, Lagilelei Saolotoga, 36, who did not see the shooting but ran down the sidewalk to her uncle’s side as soon as she heard shots fired.
A relative described Su’e as terminally ill with cancer. He suffered from schizophrenia, but the relative and others described him as harmless and childlike.
He would dance with neighborhood children and give them money when the ice cream truck came by, they said.
He had been returning home Saturday evening from a neighborhood birthday party when the confrontation occurred.
Long Beach police spokeswoman Nancy Pratt said police were summoned to the neighborhood about 7 p.m. Saturday by callers who said a man was behaving erratically. The confrontation occurred in the 3400 block of 67th Street, a cul-de-sac of modest homes and apartments just southwest of the Downey Avenue exit of the Riverside Freeway
Pratt said Su’e charged the officers, who tried to protect themselves by hitting him with their batons and shooting him with a Taser gun, which proved ineffective.
Su’e grabbed one of the officer’s batons, she said, and as the two struggled, Su’e punched the officer in the face and both fell to the ground. The other officer, “fearing for his partner’s safety as well as his own,” fired at Su’e, Pratt said.
“They thought he was under the influence of drugs and or alcohol,” said Pratt, who added that the incident still was under investigation.
Witnesses say Su’e never fought the officers. They say the police emerged from their car with batons drawn, struck his leg, then Tasered him until he was lying on his stomach. One officer shot him in the back five or six times, they said.
“As soon as the (police) car comes, the door is already half-way open and the man jumps out with his billy club. It was like they were already ready to come out and attack him and they didn’t even know who he was,” said Chrystal Pagota, 23, one of those whose birthday was being celebrated.
She said that she saw one of the two officers shoot Su’e as he lay on the sidewalk.
The crowd that witnessed the shooting consisted of partygoers, including 10 to 15 children, neighbors said. Some pulled out cellphone cameras, while others tried to help Su’e and urged police to call for paramedics, they said.
Tomicka Rollerson, 30, who held the party to celebrate her birthday and that of two other neighbors, said she asked police if she could approach Su’e to attempt to resuscitate him. She said she was a certified nursing assistant and knew CPR.
An officer pointed a gun at her and told her to move back, she said. She said she was later handcuffed and made to sit in the back seat of a police car for about 20 minutes.
Su’e was diagnosed about two years ago with terminal lung cancer and schizophrenia, said his nephew, La-auli To-omalatai, 37, of Arcadia. He said Su’e had returned to Long Beach from Texas after his wife’s death and was living with his sister-- To-omalatai’s mother -- at her home on 67th Street.
“He said, ‘I don’t want chemo. I just want to spend my last days with you,’ ” To-omalatai said. His uncle dropped from 140 to 120 pounds. “We could see he was getting worse, and he knew it, too.”
Su’e sometimes had “bad days,” when he would begin yelling, and his family sometimes called police to take him overnight, To-omalatai said.
“When the police showed up, he would go. He didn’t resist,” he said.
Su’e frequently played the guitar at the First Samoan Christian Church in Long Beach, where To-omalatai’s father is pastor, he said.
To-omalatai did not witness the shooting, but he said it sounded like an officer made a mistake.
“We’re not angry with the department,” he said. Although the family is considering legal action because of Su’e’s death, he said, “If there’s some sort of training police can receive, that is all we want to be done.”
Others described themselves as furious and stunned. The largely Samoan and African-American residents are like an extended family, watching one another’s children after school or having them to dinner, residents said. Some people built a memorial Sunday on the sidewalk where Su’e was shot, covering a dark bloodstain on the pavement with flowers and candles.
Saolotoga said her uncle sometimes acted like a “yo-yo”, sometimes yelling at people but quickly turning happy and fun-loving again, and that neighbors knew him well. He had a childlike perspective on the world, she said.
Children who sat on chairs next to the shrine or watched from nearby lawns described the dead man as a kind of neighborhood Pied Piper who strummed Samoan folk songs on the guitar, played football and basketball with them in the alley and broke into “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” to entertain babies.
Su’e was entertaining them at the party just minutes before the shooting, they said.
“He was over there, dancing with us kids,” said Allyze Pagota, 10. His friend, Jamal Williams, 8, clutched a basketball that he said Su’e gave him at the party just before leaving to walk back to his house.
“He said, ‘You want it, you can have it,’ ” Williams said.
He and Pagota, both students at McKinley Elementary School, said they both watched one of the two officers shoot Su’e.
“The kids were running, screaming, crying, and I said, “It’s going to be OK, I don’t think those are real bullets,” said Porche Pointer, 21. “But that was before the blood started coming out.”