Almost a year after a Los Angeles police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man on the city’s Skid Row, sparking a debate about police shootings and the city’s treatment of homeless residents, a civilian oversight panel found that the officers were justified in the fatal March shooting.
The death of 43-year-old Charly Keundeu Keunang, known as “Africa,” attracted national attention last year after a bystander’s cellphone video of the confrontation went viral on social media. The footage showed what initially looked like a fist fight between a black police officer and the victim, later identified as Keunang. Three more officers helped wrestle the man to the ground. There appeared to be a struggle over one of the officer’s weapons — someone can be heard yelling “drop the gun” in the video. Then the officers fired at Keunang, hitting him six times.
A coroner’s report later revealed that two of the shots came from a gun pressed against Keunang’s body, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The Los Angeles Police Commission, which oversees the LAPD’s 10,000-officer force, announced its decision not to fault the officers after a closed door meeting Tuesday. The ruling was met with outcries from the activists who packed the police commission meeting room, chanting, “Can’t kill Africa” and “Do the right thing,” as they awaited the commission’s results.
“We’re extremely, extremely disappointed,” activist Hamid Kahn told the Associated Press. “We’re not surprised because the police commission is such a rubber-stamp body. But there’s always this one flicker of hope that their own humanity will kick in and they will look at these things not to protect the police officers, but really to protect the community and speak the truth.”
The commission’s president, Matthew Johnson, told the AP that state law prevented him from saying how the commission reached its decision, though LA Police Chief Charlie Beck has said in the past that officers were justified in firing their weapons after Keunang ignored their commands, fought with police and grabbed for a rookie officer’s gun. He told the AP that the officer’s gun was found partly cocked and jammed with one round of ammunition in the chamber and another in the ejection port — indications that there had been a struggle over the weapon.
On Tuesday, Johnson called Keunang’s March 1 death “nothing short of tragic.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, the sergeant and officers involved in Keunang’s death have returned to active duty. The district attorney’s office has not yet decided whether the officers involved will face criminal charges.
The commission also issued its decision about the shooting of Sergio Navas, an unarmed father of three who was shot inside his car after a police chase that ended in Burbank on March 5, according to the Los Angeles Times. In this case, the police commission found fault with the officer who shot Navas. That officer remains on administrative duty.
Speaking to the LA Times, Beck declined to say whether he thought the officer involved in Navas’ death should face criminal charges.
Last month, Beck did recommend criminal charges for Clifford Proctor, the LAPD officer who fatally shot an unarmed homeless man in the back in May, according to KPCC. The victim, 29-year-old Brandon Glenn, was black, as was Proctor. It was the first time that Beck recommended an officer be prosecuted in a fatal shooting since he became police chief in 2009.
A KPCC investigation published last month found that at least 375 people were shot by on-duty police officers in Los Angeles County between 2010 and 2014. One in every 4 of those shot were unarmed. No LAPD officers have been prosecuted in any of those shootings, or in any shooting of a civilian since 2000, the radio station said.
Tuesday’s decisions followed a year in which police shootings, particularly in cases where the victims were black and unarmed, have made headlines in Los Angeles and across the county. According to the LA Times, 21 people were fatally shot by on-duty Los Angeles police officers in 2015.
On Tuesday, Beck told the Los Angeles Times that police officers “have a right to defend themselves” in cases such as Keunang’s.
“This [decision] was obviously made more difficult by the times we live in and by the outcome — which was sad, certainly,” Beck said. “But I also recognize how hard police officers’ jobs are. … It’s the sad reality of policing that we need to deal with.”
In a statement issued to the AP on Tuesday, the city’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, expressed confidence in the police commission’s decision and said his office is working with the LAPD to “make deadly encounters between police and citizens less frequent.”
For some, the ruling in Keunang’s case will also add to the frustration about how police approach the homeless, who are disproportionately likely to be affected by mental illness and drug use.
Keunang reportedly suffered from mental health issues, but it’s not known what role that may have played in the fatal incident last year. While in prison in the summer of 2003, a psychiatrist noted that he had a “mental disease or defect for which he requires treatment” in a psychiatric hospital, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Keunang also had methamphetamines and marijuana in his body when he died, according to his autopsy.
“It’s worse than reinforcing – it creates an even stronger divide,” General Jeff Page, a Skid Row activist who attended the meeting Tuesday, told the LA Times of the police commission’s decision. “Obviously there’s a disconnect in terms of what we’re seeing and what they’re deciding.”
Keunang was a 43-year-old Cameroonian who immigrated to the U.S. under a stolen identity in the late 1990s. Posing as a Frenchman named Charley Saturmin Robinet, he said he wanted to pursue an acting career in Los Angeles.
But in 2000, “Robinet” was convicted of robbing a bank and sentenced to 15 years in prison. After he was released in 2013, U.S. officials wanted to deport him, but Cameroon never responded to requests, and France refused to take him because he wasn’t a French citizen.
So Keunang spent some time in a halfway house before moving to Los Angeles’ Skid Row, a stretch of downtown where a large portion of the city’s homeless community lives.
A warrant was issued for his arrest early last year after Keunang allegedly violated his probation by repeatedly failing to check in with a probation officer. But he was never taken back to jail. On March 1, officers responded to a 911 call about a robbery on Skid Row. Surveillance video from the nearby Union Rescue Mission showed one man push over another’s tent. The two begin to argue.
When police arrived, the man — later identified as Keunang — jumped into his tent. Officers tried to pull him out, and he swung at them. The encounter ended minutes later, with Keunang dead and onlookers outraged over what had happened to the man.
Because Keunang had previously been arrested under his stolen identity, it took some time to sort out who exactly he was.
Keunang’s sister and their parents are suing the city for $20 million, according to the Los Angeles Times. Their suits allege the officers initiated the confrontation with Keunang and describe his death as a “cop-created killing.”
Joshua Piovia-Scott, the attorney representing Keunang’s family, told the Associated Press he was frustrated by the commission’s finding, but thought that it wouldn’t affect their lawsuit.
He’s “confident that a jury in Los Angeles is going to be outraged by this,” he said.