Police body-camera video disputes the LAPD’s account of how officers shot and killed an unarmed homeless man on skid row earlier this year, a civil lawsuit filed Wednesday in L.A. Superior Court alleged.
Police Chief Charlie Beck said officers fired on Charly Keunang, a 43-year-old Cameroonian immigrant, after he grabbed one of their holstered guns during an intense struggle. The suit, filed by Keunang’s family, said the footage did not back up that contention.
The suit cited a report in GQ magazine by writer Jeff Sharlet, who was allowed to see the body-cam footage. The police department has refused to release video from chest-mounted cameras two officers were wearing during the March 1 confrontation while its probe of the shooting is underway.
The suit also contended that eyewitness accounts and a bystander’s video contradicted the story that Keunang grabbed the gun.
“At no time did Mr. Keunang possess any type of weapon, much less fire or remove any firearm from the officers,” the suit, filed by Keunang’s family, said.
An LAPD spokesman was not immediately available to comment.
A source told the Los Angeles Times the body cameras captured an officer shouting, “He’s got my gun” multiple times before police opened fire. An enhanced version of a bystander’s video reviewed by The Times showed Keunang reaching toward an officer’s waistband as the officer kneeled on his chest and punched him. The officer’s gun was still in his holster after the shooting ended.
Keunang’s death revived long-simmering complaints from skid row residents and advocates that police escalate encounters with mentally ill and drug-addicted people who dominate the street population in the 50-block downtown district.
Keunang was confined to a prison mental hospital during a 14-year term he served for bank robbery, and an autopsy showed the presence of methamphetamine in his system.
The suit says police were told Keunang was possibly mentally ill and “acting out” when they were called to his tent March 1 by another homeless man.
Keunang “calmly engaged in discussion with officers,” the suit says, before crawling into his tent.
“At that juncture, the officers exploded into acts of violence, almost certain to cause anyone, much less a person suspected of suffering from mental illness, to panic,” the suit said.
The suit contended police could have used less than lethal tactics, including talking to Keunang, to handle the situation. According to the GQ article, Keunang repeated, “Let me express myself,” several times during the confrontation. One of the officers, the article said, replied, “We’re going to do things my way.”
“He’s exactly the person they should have been prepared for on skid row,” said attorney Dan Stormer, who is representing the Keunang family. “They went from force to lethal force in seconds.”
Keunang suffered six gunshot wounds, four of them fatal, according to an autopsy by the Los Angeles County coroner. Two were “contact gunshot wounds,” fired directly against or very close to Keunang’s body.
The family’s suit seeks damages for wrongful death, negligent supervision and training of officers and civil rights violations from the city of Los Angeles, the LAPD, Police Chief Charlie Beck and officers Chang Syed, Francisco Martinez, Daniel Torres and Joshua Volasgis. The damage amount is not specified, but an earlier claim against the city sought $20 million.
Line Foming, Keunang’s sister, said she and her parents were suing so his “memory can be honored.
“We want to make sure his life was not in vain, that nothing like that can happen again,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Massachusetts.
Keunang disappeared without explanation to his family during his prison term. After his release, the family had a brief reunion before he returned to Los Angeles to try to get travel documents to return to Cameroon, Foming said.
“When they kill him it was like I lost him twice,” Foming said.