Crime & Justice

LAPD's fatal shooting of Skid Row homeless man was in department policy, panel decides

Charly "Africa" Keunang was shot six times by officers on March 1. Police Chief Charlie Beck has said Keunang grabbed for a rookie police officer's gun after ignoring commands and becoming combative.
Courtesy of Ventura County Sheriff's Office

The Los Angeles Police Commission on Tuesday found the shooting of an unarmed homeless man last March within department policy — but took issue with one officer's tactics leading up to the shooting. 

Charly "Africa" Leundeu Keunang was shot six times and died near his tent outside the Union Rescue Mission on March 1, 2015.

"This loss of Mr. Keunang is nothing short of a tragedy for the family, relatives, loved ones, friends, the community of Skid Row, and the involved police officers," Commission President Matthew Johnson said in a statement. "To the family and friends of Mr. Keunang, my fellow Police Commissioners and I extend our sincere sympathies for your profound loss. There is no greater sadness a family can bear."

Keunang's family has filed a $20 million wrongful death lawsuit against the City of L.A.

Johnson said the commission reviewed statements of nine officers involved, along with 14 witness interviews, footage from the officers' body-worn cameras and dozens of pieces of evidence. 

At the end of their review, Johnson said, the commission agreed with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and Inspector General Alexander Bustamante that the use of deadly force was within policy — but unlike Beck and Bustamante, took issue with the tactics used by a rookie officer involved in the shooting, who at times, didn't properly secure his baton and pistol during the confrontation.

According to the chief's final report, submitted to the commission and made public Tuesday, officers suspected Keunang of hitting another man in the head with a baseball bat. The report says Keunang became aggressive with the officers, yelling and making fists. More officers arrived and one threatened to use a taser if Keunang didn't follow orders to stand against a wall.

"Keunang then stepped back and went inside his tent," the report says, refusing to come out. 

According to the report, officers believed Keunang might be armed as they entered the tent to apprehend him, at one point seeing a black item (which turned out to be a cell phone) in his hand. 

The report, which has parts of it redacted, says an officer shot Keunang with a Taser dart, to no effect — he continued to move towards an officer "swinging his army wildly."

An officer dropped a Taser and his baton — which was picked up by "T. Carey," a woman who had been lying under a nearby tarp. An officer grabbed Carey, who looked like she was about to swing the baton, according to the report. 

Meanwhile, Keunang, who was still struggling after being hit with a second Taser dart, allegedly grabbed at one of the officers' pistols — "tugging rapidly very hard almost twisting my belt off me, so much force that my magazine was unseated," according to the officer.

Footage from the body-worn cameras of two officers involved confirmed that Keunang was "manipulating" the pistol, the chief's report said. 

The assessment of the Police Commission, released later Tuesday, found that the officer had failed to properly re-holster his gun after putting it away to free up his hands and punch Keunang.

The officer "was not successful in securing the pistol by engaging the retention mechanisms of the holster, and that he induced a malfunction in his pistol during the repeated attempts to reholster," the Police Commission's finding said.

During the later struggle, body-worn camera footage, according to the commission's assessment, showed Keunang's hand "holding onto" the officer's weapon "as the weapon appears to be substantially removed" from the holster. 

The officer yelled, "he's got a hold of my gun," according to the report, and multiple officers, their names redacted, opened fire. 

The decision to fire, the police commission determined, was reasonable. 

Critics have questioned why it took so many officers to subdue one man — and accuse officers of escalating the situation.

The shooting brought international attention to L.A.'s Skid Row, where police have clashed with homeless for decades. 

Partially, the interest was in the disputed circumstances surrounding the shooting. Its notoriety was also enhanced by the dead man's mysterious past.

Keunang, a onetime aspiring actor, convicted bank robber and identity thief, had immigrated to the U.S. posing as "Charley Robinet," a Frenchman. 

Days after the shooting, local officials finally identified Keunang, who was 43 when he died. 

The circumstances surrounding his death, however, have remained murky. 

In the days after the shooting, Beck said Keunang reached for the rookie officer's holstered gun. A video captured by a bystander went viral.

The department has not released footage from the officers' body-worn cameras.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Charly Keunang's name. KPCC regrets the error.