Three Los Angeles police officers who fatally shot a black homeless man on Skid Row last year will not face criminal charges because they acted in self-defense, according to a report released Thursday by the district attorney.
Prosecutors determined that the shooting of Charly “Africa” Keunang was justified because he grabbed a rookie officer’s gun during a struggle that ended when he was shot five times March 1, 2015.
“The officers’ reasonable assessments of the threat posed by Keunang were as grave and imminent as the officers perceived,” prosecutors wrote in a memo. “Keunang posed a high likelihood of killing officers and civilians at the very instant that he was shot.”
Officers were responding to reports that Keunang, 43, a Cameroon national, had threatened another man living on the street in the section of the city teeming with homeless people.
Video of the shooting by a bystander was viewed millions of times online and prompted protests in the city and drew comparisons with the deaths of other black men killed by officers in the U.S.
A lawyer representing Keunang’s family in a $20 million lawsuit disputed that the homeless man ever had hold of an officer’s gun. Attorney Joshua Piovia-Scott said the officers who were trained to de-escalate conflicts instead initiated a confrontation that led to the killing.
“I just think that’s a travesty of justice and just a weak decision on behalf of law enforcement authorities,” Piovia-Scott said of the decision not to prosecute any officers. “Unfortunately, it’s something we’ve seen time and time again in this scourge of police killings of unarmed black men we’ve had in this country.”
The Police Commission had previously cleared officers of the shooting, though it found one officer’s tactics violated policy. It did not publicly reveal what policy was violated.
The 22-page report by the Los Angeles district attorney’s office was based largely on video shot by officers’ body cameras, surveillance video and phone footage captured by a bystander, as well as statements from officers and other witnesses.
The report dated Nov. 9 was released Thursday after names of several witnesses were blacked out, according to Greg Risling, a spokesman for the DA. It doesn’t name who wrote the report.
The report painstakingly described the short encounter from the various view points and concluded that Keunang had ignored officers’ commands when they first tried to question him about his conflict with a man who lived in a tent nearby.
Keunang got in a standoff on a sidewalk outside his own tent with officer Francisco Martinez, who threatened to use a stun gun to subdue him if he didn’t obey orders to stand against a wall.
Keunang behaved and spoke erratically as he argued with Martinez and then dove back in his tent. When officers collapsed the tent to remove him, he sprang to his feet and wheeled around with his arms extended as if trying to strike Martinez.
The officer’s rookie partner, Joshua Volasgis, intercepted Keunang. As the two men clashed, Martinez fired his stun gun, but it had no effect because it apparently didn’t penetrate Keunang’s thick clothing, the report said.
Volasgis eventually wrestled the man to the ground and Keunang got hold of the butt of his pistol.
Volasgis, who had been on the force 10 months and was still on probation, felt his gun being removed and shouted, “He’s got my gun!”
Martinez fired once, and officer Daniel Torres and Sgt. Chand Syed each fired twice, killing Keunang.
An autopsy reported that Keunang was shot six times, but the DA’s report said one bullet probably exited and re-entered Keunang’s body, accounting for a sixth wound.
The shots were followed by shouts from a crowd. Volasgis stood up with his gun drawn and pointed it at Keunang as he backed away.
“Volasgis is slightly hunched and appears to be breathing and moving as though he is physically exhausted,” said the report, which found his gun had jammed and he never fired a round.
He and another officer then handcuffed the mortally wounded man.