LAPD officers escape charges after killing unarmed homeless man on Skid Row
Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Sergeant Chand Syed and Officers Francisco Martinez and Daniel Torres "acted lawfully in self-defense and in defense of others" when they shot and killed Keunang, 43, on March 1, 2015, in the Skid Row area of downtown Los Angeles, local prosecutors wrote in a November 9 memo obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
The memo explained why the district attorney's office was choosing not to charge the LAPD officers with an on-duty shooting, something that has not happened in Los Angeles since 2000, according to an LA Times analysis of officer-involved shootings.
Prosecutors point to video footage captured by Syed's body camera that indicated, to them, that Keunang had a hold of another police officer's holstered gun during a group struggle with Keunang. That officer, rookie cop Joshua Volasgis, alerted other officers on the scene that Keunang was tugging at this gun. "He's got my gun!" Volasgis yelled, according to the memo.
Keunang was "rapidly gaining control" of Volasgis' gun, the 22-page memo said. Keunang was then hit with six bullets fired by accompanying officers.
"Keunang posed a high likelihood of killing officers and civilians at the very instant that he was shot," the memo said.
The body camera footage mentioned in the memo has not been released to the public. The assertion made by district attorney's office, that Keunang had a hold of Volasgis' holstered gun, is in line with reports by the LAPD and its inspector general, the LA Times reported. While the body camera footage remains protected, video captured at the scene by a security camera and by an onlooker were released to the public, sparking protests in the city.
Josh Piovia-Scott, an attorney for Keunang's family, said the prosecutors' decision not to charge the officers was a "travesty of justice."
"We had six heavily armed, trained officers and one unarmed homeless man," he said, according to the LA Times. "Law enforcement officers are trained to de-escalate situations and to use deadly force — any force, but particularly deadly force — only as a last resort. That obviously did not happen."
The encounter between LAPD and Keunang began when someone alerted police to an attempted robbery and assault, identifying Keunang as the suspect. Upon arrival and questioning by the officers, Keunang became agitated and ignored the officers' commands, according to the LAPD. He was Tased three times during the tense back-and-forth. Upon the second Taser shot, Keunang began to swing his arms and lunged at Martinez, according to the district attorney's memo. Volasgis then approached as Keunang was Tased a third time.
At some point, Volasgis said he felt a tug at his gun. "He’s going for my gun! He’s going for my gun!" Volasgis told other officers, leading to a hail of gunfire aimed at Keunang.
Beck has said the gun was found partly cocked and jammed with one round of ammunition in the gun's chamber and another in the ejection port.
Keunang, a Cameroonian national also known as "Africa," was living in a tent on Skid Row after several years in a psychiatric facility, according to previous reports. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said in March 2015 that "several of the officers [involved in the shooting] had participated [in] and completed our most extensive mental illness training over a 36-hour course."
The circumstances of Keunang's death prompted new LAPD policies regarding interactions with the city's homeless population, who often deal with mental or physical health issues or substance abuse problems. An autopsy on Keunang found methamphetamine and marijuana in his system, according to reports.
Keunang's family filed a federal wrongful-death lawsuit in August 2015. The suit says after being shot, Keunang was handcuffed while the officers abstained from offering medical aid and "and looked on while he bled to death in pain and terror."
David Winslow, an attorney for the LAPD officers, hailed the decision to not charge his clients, saying they did "nothing inappropriate."
"Anyone who saw the video and knew what it looked like from the officers’ point of view would have known with confidence that there would be no consideration of charges."