The controversial police shooting of Charly “Africa” Keunang on skid row was watched by millions around the world when a bystander posted video online.
But for almost three years, the Los Angeles Police Department has kept crucial recordings captured by the officers under wraps.
Those body camera videos, obtained by The Times, offer a unique look at the dramatic moments leading up to the March 2015 killing including how police officers treated Keunang and the violent struggle with him before shots were fired.
Keunang’s family has cited the footage in court documents as proof that police were too aggressive and provoked the shooting. The LAPD, prosecutors and the city’s Police Commission have said the recordings and other evidence show the officers were justified in shooting Keunang after he grabbed an officer’s gun.
The graphic recordings show how quickly the encounter escalated. A rookie officer can be heard shouting “he has my gun,” but it is difficult to see whether Keunang grabs the holstered weapon.
On Monday, hours after The Times published the recordings, the LAPD provided two enhanced images from the footage that it said showed Keunang’s hand and fingers on the officer’s gun. Those images, Chief Charlie Beck said, were “extremely important” in his analysis of the deadly encounter.
“When you watch that video in real-time, it is difficult to see the suspect’s hand on the officer’s gun,” Beck said. “But when you slow it down, frame by frame, it is quite easy to see.”
An attorney for Keunang’s family said they too had watched enhanced footage and didn’t see Keunang grab the gun.
“This was a cop-created killing. This did not need to happen,” attorney Joshua Piovia-Scott said. “And the reason it did happen is because of the conduct of these officers.”
Keunang’s death became a lightning rod in the heated debate over policing, one fueled by police killings of black men across the country. The shooting on skid row touched other corners of that debate: how police interact with people who are homeless and might be mentally ill. Whether officers do enough to de-escalate. And what to do with body camera recordings.
Since LAPD officers began wearing body cameras in recent years — roughly 6,000 now have them, and more are being rolled out — the department has never publicly released videos captured by the devices. The Times obtained the skid row footage from federal court, where the recordings were recently filed as part of a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Keunang’s family against the city.
The department’s policy could soon change, however. The Police Commission, the five-person panel that oversees the department, is drafting new rules that could bring more transparency — a draft that the panel’s vice president, Matt Johnson, said could be released by the end of the month.
Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the recordings provided valuable context to the skid row shooting that until now, the public had only read about in news reports and public records.
“There’s nothing on this tape that justifies keeping it secret,” he said. “The public has a right to know what happens when a police officer, who’s paid with public money, kills somebody. It’s absurd that it took this long.”
Beck said it was important to put the recordings in context, something he often mentions when discussing the public release of police video. He pointed to other evidence — including the rookie officer’s testimony that he felt Keunang tugging at his holster — that he said was key in evaluating what happened.
“Rather than just releasing video and saying: ‘Well, here it is. This is all there is to know,’ I think it is much more important to say that this is a good piece of evidence, but it has to be weighed with many, many other good pieces of evidence,” Beck said.
Keunang’s death renewed 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. It also occurred before the Police Commission revamped LAPD rules to require that officers try to defuse tense encounters — “de-escalate” in police speak — whenever possible before firing their guns.
What is the urgency? There are ways of resolving these situations more peacefully.
The officers approached Keunang after responding to a report of an attempted robbery on South San Pedro Street. When the officers arrived, police have said, they were told that Keunang had also threatened the caller with a baseball bat.
The body camera videos — one recorded by Officer Francisco Martinez, the other by Sgt. Chand Syed — begin at different times. At one point, Martinez can be heard questioning Keunang outside his tent.
“Listen, listen,” Keunang says.
“No, no,” Martinez says. “It doesn’t work like that.”
Martinez asks another officer for a Taser and warns Keunang he will be Tased. Syed tells Keunang the Taser will hurt if he doesn’t comply, and asks him to relax.
“Let me express myself,” Keunang says.
Martinez repeatedly orders Keunang to stand against a nearby wall. Instead, Keunang ducks back inside his tent.
“Leave me alone!” he shouts.
“You’ve gotta step outside, man. We’ve gotta figure out what’s going on,” Syed says. “Come on, brother. Just relax.”
Keunang stands, and Martinez appears to fire the Taser. Keunang then spins his arms wildly as he circles toward police. The officers take Keunang to the ground, and a struggle occurs.
“Stop resisting!” one officer shouts. One officer presses a Taser against Keunang’s leg.
Seconds later, the rookie officer begins shouting: “He’s got my gun!”
The first gunshot can then be heard, followed by a scream from Keunang. Syed draws his gun and fires. Martinez also shot at Keunang, as did a third officer, Daniel Torres.
Samuel Walker, a nationally recognized expert on policing, said the officers could have taken more time and calmly answered Keunang’s questions. Instead, he said, they yelled at him and threatened him with a Taser.
“What is the urgency?” Walker asked. “There are ways of resolving these situations more peacefully.”
Cue Jn-Marie, a skid row pastor, said he believed the videos show how police interact with those living within the sprawling tent city. Keunang “is a symbol of what’s going on in our community,” he said, just as Rodney King was.
The union representing rank-and-file LAPD officers defended the officers’ actions, saying they used “the appropriate level of force after attempting to de-escalate the encounter.” Keunang, the union said, became dangerous when he charged at police and grabbed the officer’s gun.
Steve Soboroff, president of the Police Commission, acknowledged that people would view the footage differently. He stressed that the panel’s review of the officers’ actions was thorough — and neutral.
”Some people will look at it and they will see exactly what they want to see: that it was one person’s fault,” he said of the footage. “And other people will look at it and see exactly what they want to see: that it was the other person’s fault.”
“We do neither. We’re in the middle,” he said. “And in this case, we had a lot more information than that video.”
6:40 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, skid row pastor Cue Jn-Marie and attorney Joshua Piovia-Scott as well as a statement from the union that represents LAPD officers.
1 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from policing expert Samuel Walker, ACLU attorney Peter Bibring, and police commissioners Matt Johnson and Steve Soboroff.
This article was originally published at 7 a.m.