A mentally ill transient from Cameroon in Central Africa was needlessly shot to death on downtown’s Skid Row by Los Angeles police officers who ignored their training, an attorney for the man’s family told a federal civil jury Tuesday, but the defense countered that the victim himself caused the videotaped encounter to become deadly.
Charly “Africa” Keunang, 43, was killed March 1, 2015, when he struggled with police who approached him about a robbery call in the 500 block of South San Pedro Street. Police alleged that Keunang tried to remove an officer’s gun from its holster during the scuffle, leading to the shooting.
Keunang’s family sued the city of Los Angeles and four of its police officers in federal court, seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages on allegations of wrongful death, negligence and civil rights violations.
“Members of LAPD refused to follow their training and unnecessarily escalated” the incident “and killed an unarmed mentally ill man,” plaintiffs’ attorney Joshua Piovia-Scott alleged in his opening statement.
The plaintiffs contend that the officers turned what began as a calm interaction into a chaotic, violent encounter that ended Keunang’s life. The case focused national attention on police shootings because the encounter was caught on video by a bystander and quickly went viral after it was posted on Facebook.
It was also recorded on body cameras worn by two of the involved officers, making it one of the first police shootings with body camera evidence. That footage was released to the public in January.
In his statement to the jury, Deputy City Attorney Christian R. Bojorquez — representing Sgt. Chand Syed, Officers Francisco Martinez and Daniel Torres and former Officer Joshua Volasgis — alleged that if Keunang had complied with the officers’ requests, “we wouldn’t be here today.”
Piovia-Scott countered that the lawmen allowed the incident to spiral out of control so quickly that they “shot Mr. Keunang just six minutes after officers arrived on the scene.”
Videotape of the struggle played for the jury by the plaintiffs showed Volasgis — a rookie officer at the time who is no longer employed by the Los Angeles Police Department — shouting “He’s got my gun!” referring to Keunang just before the fatal shots are fired.
Piovia-Scott alleged that Keunang “did not, in fact, have his (Volasgis’) gun, nor did he ever have his gun,” and also alleged that an LAPD investigation found none of Keunang’s DNA or fingerprints on any of Volasgis’ equipment.
Bojorquez said police were initially called by another homeless person whose tent was next to Keunang’s. The “neighbor” told police that Keunang, who reportedly suffered from schizophrenia, had attacked him and dragged his tent into the street, the defense attorney told the eight-member panel.
“Mr. Keunang’s actions dictated how the scene was handled,” Bojorquez alleged.
But Piovia-Scott told a different story, alleging that officers disregarded their training and allowed the encounter to become violent almost immediately.
“Officers are trained to assume a quiet, non-threatening manner when interacting with someone who may be mentally ill,” Piovia-Scott said.
Instead, Volasgis tackled Keunang, forcing him to the ground, where the then-officer repeatedly punched him in the face and sat on his chest before the shooting.
In February 2016, the Police Commission ruled that Syed, Martinez and Torres were justified in shooting Keunang. Chief Charlie Beck said at the time that Keunang was a robbery suspect and that evidence supported reports he had tried to grab a rookie officer’s gun.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office announced in December 2016 that no criminal charges would be filed against the officers who shot Keunang, finding that the shooting was an act of self-defense.
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