Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck said Monday a homeless man who was fatally shot by police on Skid Row was violently struggling with police and grabbing at one officer’s holstered pistol, prompting the shooting.

Beck also said officers who approached the man, identified only as “Africa,” acted “compassionately” toward him until he began reaching for the weapon.

“When police approached the suspect, he repeatedly refused to comply with officers’ commands and then began to fight with them,” he said.

Beck said the officers used Tasers “in an attempt to subdue the man, however, the Tasers appeared to have little effect and he continued to violently resist.”

As the midday Sunday struggle near the Union Rescue Mission continued, the man “forcibly grabbed one of the officers’ holstered pistols, resulting in an officer-involved shooting.”

Beck provided the media with photos of the officer’s handgun, showing the weapon’s slide pulled forward and a round partially ejected from the chamber — an indication that the suspect was pulling at the gun during the struggle. He also provided an enhanced photo from a widely viewed cell phone video of the shooting appearing to show the suspect reaching at the officer’s waist.

“This is an awful tragedy,” Beck said. “The officers took, on the face of it, reasonable steps to avoid it. If the individual had not grabbed the officer’s pistol, we would not be having this discussion.”

Three officers, including a sergeant, fired their guns in the struggle, which occurred in the center of a homeless community that has grown in population in recent years. The man was suspected of theft and battery and was seen violently resisting arrest just before gunshots rang out.

A total of four officers, all from the LAPD’s Central Station, were involved in the struggle, much of which was captured on an amateur video that was viewed 3.2 million times in 10 hours.

Beck said two officers were injured in the struggle. He also said all the officers were assigned to the department’s Safer Cities Initiative and were “specially trained on dealing with homeless people and mental illness issues.”

“All of the officers had had training to some extent in dealing with the mentally ill,” Beck said.

Witnesses to the shooting screamed “he had no gun” as police struggled to control the chaotic scene in the shooting’s aftermath. Some witnesses interviewed by television reporters said officers could have overpowered the suspect without resorting to lethal force, and one called the killing murder. On the video, someone is heard yelling, “Drop the gun,” just before the shots are heard.

One Skid Row-area resident told the Los Angeles Times the man who was shot had spent about 10 years in a mental hospital before arriving recently in the downtown area.

First one shot, and then four others, were heard in quick succession on the video. Police moved back and attempted to calm the crowd that had formed, and people started yelling that the man had been killed while unarmed. Insults were shouted at the officers.

The man died at the scene.

The LAPD announced that the department’s Force Investigative Division had started an investigation in coordination with the LAPD’s Office of the Inspector General. The findings will be submitted to the Police Commission, the civilian panel that oversees the police Department, so it can determine if resorting to deadly force was consistent with department policies.

Additionally, the Justice System Integrity Division of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office will “conduct a comprehensive review of the facts,” the statement said.

Civil rights leader Earl Ofari Hutchinson called for the Police Commission to hold a special hearing on police use of force on skid row.

“The killing of a homeless man identified as ‘Africa’ underscores the need for the police commission to hold a special hearing to fully examine police tactics and training in the use of deadly force by LAPD officers involving skid row residents, many of whom have major mental challenges,” he said. “The special hearing would be an unprecedented effort by the commission to set a firm protocol and standard LAPD officers use to minimize the use of deadly force in encounters on skid row.”

Another civil rights advocacy organization, the National Action Network, called for an emergency meeting with police Beck.

“Tensions are very high throughout the skid row community with this latest shooting of another unarmed mentally ill African American man,” said NAN Political Director Najee Ali. He said Beck needs to demonstrate “that his office values the lives of the weakest members of society — the homeless.”

The video, apparently shot on a phone, was posted on websites within hours of the death by a man named Anthony Blackburn. It was downloaded 1.7 million times in six hours, and 3.2 million times four hours later, according to Facebook’s counter.

It shows the man swinging wildly at four Los Angeles police officers who surrounded him on the sidewalk in front of the Union Rescue Mission at 545 S. San Pedro St.

“During that struggle, at least one less-than-lethal device, a Taser, was deployed,” said Sgt. Barry Montgomery of the LAPD’s media relations office. “However, at this time we do not know if that Taser struck the suspect.”

The video does not show the Taser use, but a clicking sound typical of a stun gun can be heard.

The man could be seen being pushed to the sidewalk as four officers grab his flailing limbs and his torso. Then the command “Drop the gun” is heard before shots ring out.

“We feel great compassion in the LAPD for people who live in conditions of homelessness and often (with) mental illness with no treatment,” Beck said. “We prepare our officers to deal as best they can with them. … I’ve reviewed the other videos. It appears to me the officers acted compassionately up until the time force was required.”

Beck said two of the officers involved in the struggle were wearing body cameras, which will offer “a unique perspective that we believe will be crucial to determining the propriety of the officers’ actions.” He said that footage would not immediately be made public, saying, “At this point in the investigation it would not be proper for us to release it.”

Mayor Eric Garcetti watched the online video and said he planned to view the footage from the officers’ body cameras. He urged residents not to jump to conclusions about the shooting until investigations can be completed.

He noted that “loss of life in this town, no matter who it is, is a tragedy.”

—City News Service

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