Crime & Justice

Skid Row police shooting update: incident will be early test of LAPD body camera policy

A makeshift memorial for the shooting victim in Skid Row.
A makeshift memorial for the shooting victim in Skid Row.
Rina Palta/KPCC
A makeshift memorial for the shooting victim in Skid Row.
Photos of evidence from the scene of an officer-involved shooting on L.A.'s Skid Row that left a homeless man dead were shown at a press conference on Monday, March 2, 2015.
Rina Palta/KPCC
A makeshift memorial for the shooting victim in Skid Row.
Photos of evidence from the scene of an officer-involved shooting on L.A.'s Skid Row that left a homeless man dead were shown at a press conference on Monday, March 2, 2015.
Rina Palta/KPCC
A makeshift memorial for the shooting victim in Skid Row.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck speaks at a press conference on Monday, March 2, 2015, a day after an officer-involved shooting on L.A.'s Skid Row that left a homeless man dead.
Rina Palta/KPCC
A makeshift memorial for the shooting victim in Skid Row.
A screenshot of a video posted on Facebook shows at least five officers responding to a situation in Skid Row and shooting a man.
Screenshot from video posted on Facebook


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Los Angeles police continued their investigation into a shooting that took place Sunday shortly before noon in the city's Skid Row district. At least one video of the incident surfaced online Sunday afternoon and police say they're also reviewing footage from surveillance video and officers' on-body cameras, as well as additional witness testimony and cell phone video. L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and police Chief Charlie Beck both called for calm while the investigation is underway.

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Updates

6:15 p.m.: LAPD provides unusual level of detail about incident; shooting will be early test of body camera policy

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said the fatal shooting of an unarmed man on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles followed a violent confrontation between the man and five LAPD officers. 

“Let me start by saying this: this was a tragedy. It was also a very intense situation and a brutal, brutal fight,” he said.

Facing international interest and scrutiny, Beck provided an unusual amount of detail about the fatal shooting this early in the investigation to dozens of reporters gathered at police headquarters.  The videotaped shooting has been viewed more than six million times on YouTube and sparked angry condemnation. Some on social media questioned why five Los Angeles police officers could not subdue a suspect without using deadly force.

In response, Beck showed reporters blown up photos from bystander video of the incident which he said showed the man grabbing for the gun of the rookie officer on scene. 

Another photo showed the officer’s gun holster with a safety strap undone and the pistol magazine partially dislodged.   

A police spokesman said two officers were injured, one of them using crutches to get around today. 

The investigation will be a test of the department’s new policy on police body cams. Two of the officers were wearing them.

“That offers a unique perspective that we believe will be crucial to the determining the propriety of the officers actions,” Beck said.

Police were responding to reports of a robbery shortly before Noon Sunday, and the alleged victim pointed to the man who was eventually shot as the suspect. Beck said the man ran into a tent at fifth and San Pedro, and the fight with officers began after they pulled the tent away.

The whole incident, he said, lasted about three or four minutes.

Beck defended his officers, but said he would reserve judgment on whether they acted lawfully or within department policy until the investigation is concluded. Three investigations are underway into the incident, including by the LAPD’s Force Investigation Division, the Police Commission’s Inspector General and the District Attorney’s Justice Integrity Division.

American Civil Liberties Union Attorney Peter Bibring said the incident follows years of aggressive policing on Skid Row.   

“To really understand what happened here, the police commission and the department are going to have to take a hard look at the suppression tactics that have been used on Skid Row for years.” 

He said the LAPD needs to provide more mental health and homeless training to officers on Skid Row. 

Beck said they already receive an extra two-and-a-half hours, and some receive a full extra week of training.  

Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York police officer and prosecutor who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the video of the incident is unusual.

“The one thing that is notable about the video is that police are not normally subjected to full frontal attacks like that,” said O'Donnell. “When you try to take an officer’s gun, you have to realize that’s very serious.”

He noted the officers tried to use a Taser first, before escalating to deadly force.

“Whenever somebody tries to reach for the gun of a police officer, all hell usually breaks loose,” said Maria Haberfeld, who studies use of force issues at John Jay. “There is no doubt your life in is in danger when somebody is trying to grab your gun.”

In an odd twist to the incident, the standard issue LAPD Glock 9mm pistol the man allegedly was trying to grab from an officer became inoperable during the struggle, according to Commander Andrew Smith. The magazine that holds the bullets popped out of the gun partially and one round was caught in the “ejection port.”

“That’s what we call a class three malfunction,” Smith said. “At that point, the gun won’t fire.”

Frank Stoltze

4:25 p.m.: Skid Row regulars say suspect was humble, sometimes angry

A collapsed tent, pile of clothes -  and cluster of candles - lay where Skid Row residents say “Afrika" regularly made his bed on San Pedro Street.

He’s the man who died in an altercation with Los Angles Police Department officers Sunday. Coroner’s officials have yet to identify him, pending notification of next of kin.

But Afrika was well known on this patch of sidewalk.

"Afrika, he was a humble man, who lived in a tent,” Kareem Anderson said as he clipped a customer's hair. Anderson set up a boombox and a metal chair with a wooden back on the sidewalk across the street from the shooting, as he often does. It’s his makeshift barbershop. 

"Slept by himself. He kept to himself. Smoked a little weed. He didn't bother anybody,” Anderson said. "But he was pretty firm about not letting people bother him."

Andy Bales, executive director of the Union Rescue Mission,also remembers seeing the 30-something-year-old man as he'd pull into the mission's driveway many mornings. Afrika slept right next to the driveway – sometimes so close Bales would have to ask him to move it so he could pull in.

"There were many sides to him," Bales said. "He helped our guys clean up here, spray and wash the sidewalk.” 

 On occasion, he also saw the man yelling and angry.

"I think that's typical of what the environment produces in the folks here,” Bales said.

Bales said Afrika's life and death are less a reflection of who he was than the quandary and brutal environment of Skid Row, where the homeless cluster around a collection of services providers.

"It probably reflects more this untenable situation that is Skid Row - and this horrible environment - more than it reflects Afrika and more than it reflects the LAPD,” Bales said.

— Rina Palta

2:15 p.m.: Garcetti calls for patience during investigation; won't rush release of on-body camera footage

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti made a statement on the shooting Monday afternoon, saying that police were reviewing footage from the two on-body cameras that officers were wearing at the time of the shooting. He added that LAPD officers, politicians and civil libertarians are still in the process of deciding on some policy matters regarding the footage collected, including whether and when that footage should be released to the public. 

"Even when we have those protocols in place, I think it will be rare that video will be released while an investigation is ongoing," Garcetti said. "I think that's critical evidence and I would remind people that cameras only tell one part of the story. They can be from one angle; they can be edited to show one part of the story. So this will be one element that will strengthen the investigation but it will not, by itself, be the sole determinant."

The LAPD's on-body cameras were first tested in Skid Row.

The mayor said he wanted to be careful in crafting policy on when and whether to release police video to the public, adding that those guidelines would have to take into account the sensitive nature of much of the video that police collect, including video that depicts victims of violence or rape.  

"I don't think I'll ever be comfortable releasing or making that available to the public," he said. "What we want is to have this at this point help us with the investigation, get to the truth — our officers, nobody else." 

Garcetti said that he had "full faith" in the city's ability to investigate the shooting, calling for patience as investigators review the evidence.

"This was a fast-moving situation. I don't think you or I should judge whether tactics, whether a situation was done right or wrong before an investigation is done." 

He echoed LAPD Chief Beck's comments earlier in the day that the officers were given additional training in policing mental health. 

"Remember, these police officers were responding to protect the most vulnerable people that we have in the city as well," he said.

— KPCC staff

12:33 p.m.: Suspect 'forcibly grabbed' officer's gun, Beck says

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said that the officers who fatally shot a homeless man on Skid Row Sunday did so after he grabbed an officer's holstered pistol during a struggle.

The slide on the officer's gun was partially engaged and a round partially ejected, which is an indication of a struggle over the weapon, Beck told reporters at a news conference at noon Monday.

"He forcibly grabbed one of the officers' holstered pistols," Beck said, according to NBC4, which carried the news conference live.

Officers have said they were responding to a robbery call. When the suspect wouldn't comply with their demands, they used Tasers, but with little effect.

Three officers fired at the man, and two of them were wearing body cameras at the time, LAPD Commander Andy Smith told reporters.

Police have positively identified the man but will not release that information until the Coroner has confirmed his identity and the man's family has been notified, Smith said. Others have referred to the man as "Afrika."

A witness captured video and put it on Facebook. The video quickly garnered more than 6 million views, according to the Associated Press.

The DA's office and the Los Angeles police commission's Inspector General are examining the video as part of their independent investigations, the AP reports.

— KPCC staff

6:37 a.m.: At least 1 officer wearing body camera

Los Angeles police said they plan to use a graphic video that went viral along with footage from at least one body camera to aid in their investigation after three officers shot and killed a man on the city's Skid Row during a struggle over one of the officers' guns.

The video widely circulated on social media within a few hours of the incident Sunday brought attention to the death of the man who wound up wrestling with police amid the tents, sleeping bags and trash of Skid Row, where many of the city's homeless stay.

The three officers, one of whom is a sergeant, shot the man as they struggled on the ground for control of one of the police officer's weapons, after a stun gun proved ineffective, LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith said. The officers had been responding to a report of a robbery.

Smith said at least one of the officers was also wearing a body camera.

Smith said the department would attempt to amplify the video's sound and pictures to figure out exactly what happened.

"The video is disturbing," Smith said at a briefing with reporters late Sunday night. "It's disturbing any time anyone loses their life. It's a tragedy."

Police Commission President Steve Soboroff said the independent inspector general and the district attorney had all begun investigating the incident.

Soboroff told KPCC that he had seen the video but that a complete investigation was needed before anyone could determine if the officers' actions were in policy.

"It isn’t just one knee-jerk at one video. We owe the victim and his family and the officers and the community to find out what happened, not to rush to judgment," Soboroff said.

A complete investigation would involve statements from each of the witnesses and the officers and a review of the videos, including any footage from security cameras, he said.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson, head of the activist group the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, called on the Police Commission to look at the department's policy more broadly by holding a special hearing on use of force by officers in Skid Row encounters.

Hutchinson said in a statement that the shooting "underscores the need for the police commission to hold a special hearing to fully examine police tactics and training in the use of deadly force by LAPD officers involving skid row residents many of whom have major mental challenges."

Soboroff told KPCC he had reached out to Hutchinson and said he wanted to meet with him "to figure something out, because I think it's a good idea," though he said he wasn't sure such a hearing should fall to the commission or to the mayor's office or another agency.

Tents and cardboard shelters cover the sidewalks of Skid Row, the downtown neighborhood where an estimated 1,700 homeless people live. Many of them struggle with mental illness and addiction.

On the video — which had been viewed 4.3 million times over the first 12 hours that it was posted — six officers can be seen responding to the scene. They begin wrestling with the man as he takes swings at them.

Two of the officers break away to subdue and handcuff a woman who had picked up one of their dropped batons.

The struggle becomes increasingly blurry and distant, but shouting can be heard, including the word, "gun," followed by five apparent gunshots.

(WARNING: The following video contains graphic language and violence.)

Keunang video

Police did not release the man's name or give any other identifying details, and Smith said he did not know whether the man was homeless.

Other recent deaths during police actions in New York and in Ferguson, Missouri, and the lack of prosecution of the officers involved, have brought nationwide protest.

The violence Sunday had echoes of the August shooting by Los Angeles police of 25-year-old Ezell Ford, whose death in a struggle with officers brought demonstrations in the city.

Ford was unarmed, but police officers said he was shot only after reaching for an officer's gun.

In Sunday's incident, witnesses told the Los Angeles Times that the man is known on the street as "Afrika," and that he had been there for four or five months.

One witness, Jose Gil, 38, told the Times he saw the man swinging at police then heard one of them shout, "he's got my gun!" before the shots were fired.

Dennis Horne, 29, said the man had been fighting with someone else in his tent before officers arrived.

"It's sad," Horne said. "There's no justification to take somebody's life."

— AP with KPCC staff

This story has been updated.