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Body camera video undercuts police account of skid row shooting, suit says

Body camera video undercuts police account of skid row shooting, suit says
Charly Leundeu Keunang, 43, a Cameroonian national, hugs his mother, Heleine Tchayou, in 2014. Keunang was shot and killed by LAPD in the skid row area of Los Angeles on March 1, 2015. (Handout / Family handout)

Video from police body cameras disputes the Los Angeles Police Department's account of the fatal police shooting this year of an unarmed homeless man on downtown's skid row, according to a civil lawsuit filed Wednesday in L.A. Superior Court.

Citing a story in GQ magazine by writer Jeff Sharlet, who said he saw the body-cam footage, the suit alleges that the video does not back up Police Chief Charlie Beck's contention that Charly Leundeu Keunang grabbed an officer's holstered gun during the March 1 confrontation. Eyewitnesses and a widely viewed video taken by a bystander also contradict the police account, the suit says.

"At no time did Mr. Keunang possess any type of weapon, much less fire or remove any firearm from the officers," said the suit, which was filed by Keunang's family.

Police said Keunang, a 43-year-old immigrant from Cameroon, was shot and killed during a struggle on a skid row sidewalk as several officers tried to take him into custody on suspicion of robbery. The LAPD has declined to release two officers' body-cam footage while the shooting remains under investigation.

LAPD Commander Andy Smith says the department does not comment on pending litigation.

Keunang's death revived long-simmering complaints from skid row residents and homeless advocates that police needlessly escalate encounters with the mentally ill and drug-addicted people who dominate the street population in the 50-block downtown district. Keunang had been confined to a prison mental hospital during a 14-year term he served for bank robbery, and an autopsy report said there was methamphetamine in his system.

The suit said police were told Keunang was possibly mentally ill and "acting out" when they were called to his sidewalk tent by another homeless man.

Keunang "calmly engaged in discussion with officers" before crawling into his tent, the suit said. Officers fired Tasers into the tent, then pulled Keunang out, spinning and flailing, before they knocked him to the ground and began punching him.

"At that juncture, the officers exploded into acts of violence, almost certain to cause anyone, much less a person suspected of suffering from mental illness, to panic," according to the lawsuit.

The suit said police could have handled the situation using less-than-lethal tactics, including talking to Keunang. Keunang repeated, "Let me express myself," several times during the confrontation, according to the GQ article. One of the officers replied, "We're going to do things my way," the article said.

"He's exactly the person they should have been prepared for on skid row," said attorney Dan Stormer, who is representing the Keunang family. "They went from force to lethal force in seconds."

A bystander's video of the shooting, which took place in view of scores of people, has been watched millions of times online and broadcast on television.

An enhanced version of the video reviewed by The Times shows Keunang reaching toward Officer Joshua Volasgis' waistband as Volasgis knelt on the homeless man's chest and punched him. It did not show contact with the gun, which was still in the officer's holster when the shooting ended.

A source told the Los Angeles Times the body cameras captured Volasgis shouting, "He's got my gun!" multiple times before other police opened fire.

LAPD Sgt. Chand Syed and Officers Francisco Martinez and Daniel Torres fired six shots at Keunang, four of them fatal, according to police and an autopsy by the Los Angeles County coroner. Two were "contact gunshot wounds," fired directly against or very close to Keunang's body.

The family's suit seeks damages from the city of Los Angeles, the LAPD, Chief Beck and the four officers, on allegations of wrongful death, negligent supervision and training of officers, and civil rights violations. The damage amount is not specified, but an earlier claim against the city sought $20 million.

Line Foming, Keunang's sister, said she and her parents were suing so his "memory can be honored.

"We want to make sure his life was not in vain, that nothing like that can happen again," she said.

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For more news on the homelessness, follow @geholland.

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