Crime & Justice

Skid Row police shooting: Journalist says police body cam video disputes officers' account

A screenshot of a video posted on Facebook shows at least five officers responding to a situation in Skid Row and shooting a man.
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

Listen to story

Download this story 2MB

Four months after a homeless man living on Skid Row was shot to death by police, a journalist who reviewed body camera footage disputes officers' claims that the suspect reached for one of their guns. 

Charly Keunang was shot and killed by police in downtown L.A. on March 1, 2015 after five officers responding to a robbery call said he attacked them and attempted to grab one of their guns, prompting them to fire.

Bystanders caught the shooting on cell video and posted it online, where it quickly went viral. 

Jeff Sharlet spent months researching this story for a piece just published in GQ Magazine. He was allowed to see video from the body cameras worn by two officers involved in the shooting and listened to interviews from some of the officers who were involved that day.

In an interview with NPR's Kelly McEvers, Sharlet said that the footage reveals more than the videos that went viral shortly after the shooting, and that Keunang had not been threatening the officers.

"We learned that the account of this as a — sort of a wild man who is out-of-control that was offered up to the public is not correct," Sharlet said. "We watched the body cams. We see a man whose feet almost never move, whose hands are open and who was saying again and again, 'let me express myself. Just let me express myself'."

After an initial back-and-forth with officers, Sharlet said Keunang returned to his tent, exasperated, and then came back out to talk with the officers with something in his hand. The officers tell him to put his hands up, Sharlet said, and then tased him.

This is the point where the videos that have gone viral show a suspect that appears to be violently flailing at officers.

"You look at that," said Sharlet, "and it looks like this guy is twirling and trying to punch them. And then I saw the body cams which, of course, are a lot closer up. And you see that instead of swinging at them with fists that he is almost falling down every second, his hands open. He seems to be twisting to try[ing] and get the taser wires out of his back. He's not punching. It is physical, yes. Certainly the officers are justified at that point in tackling him. But it is not the wild attack that has been described."

Sharlet said the body cam videos show that Keunang did not have his hand on any of the officers' weapons,  though the officer takes the gun out of its holster himself several times. 

"— none of which were mentioned when the LAPD released a photograph of the gun which did indeed have some kind of malfunction partially in its holster," Sharlet said. "They didn't mention that he had un-holstered it three times."

LAPD Police Chief Beck told reporters in the days following the shooting that Keunang had tried to pry the gun loose from an officer during a fight. 

"While on the ground," Beck said, "and struggling with the officers, the man forcibly grabbed one of the officers' pistols, resulting in an officer-involved shooting."  

The officers' body camera footage has not been made available to the public.

Mayor Eric Garcetti urged caution in the week after the shooting, saying LAPD hadn't yet fully put in place protocol for how and when to release body camera footage, but saying their public release would likely be rare.

"I think it will be rare that video will be released while an investigation is ongoing," Garcetti said at a press conference in the days following the shooting.

"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," he said.

Listen to the audio above for more of Sharlet's interview with NPR. You can read his detailed assessment of the body camera footage in the recent issue of GQ.