The Los Angeles City Council Tuesday approved a $1.95 million legal settlement stemming from the 2015 Skid Row shooting death of a mentally ill transient from the central African country of Cameroon by police officers.
The shooting of Charly “Africa” Keunang received national attention after video posted on social media by a bystander went viral and when footage from body cameras worn by two of the officers was publicly released.
A federal jury found two of the Los Angeles Police Department officers involved in the shooting liable for financial damages in the deadly encounter, although the Board of Police Commissioners ruled in 2016 that all of the officers involved in the incident were justified in their actions, and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office the same year declined to bring criminal charges against the officers who shot Keunang, finding that the shooting was an act of self-defense.
Keunang, 43, was killed outside his tent on a sidewalk on downtown’s Skid Row on March 1, 2015. His family sued the city of Los Angeles and four officers, seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages on allegations of wrongful death, negligence and civil rights violations.
An eight-member jury in May unanimously determined that Officer Francisco Martinez deprived Charly “Africa” Keunang of his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable force and that Sgt. Chand Syed breached his duty as a supervisor to intervene during the fatal encounter.
The jury cleared a third defendant, Officer Daniel Torres, while former Officer Joshua Volasgis — who was also named as a defendant — had been expected to face proceedings in state court, but the settlement effectively ends that case, Deputy City Attorney Christian R. Bojorquez said in May when the then-pending terms were announced.
During the trial, defense attorneys said police were initially called by another homeless person whose tent was next to Keunang’s, who told police that Keunang had attacked him and dragged his tent into the street.
Officer body camera video shows officers surrounding Keunang as he stood outside his tent, with Martinez repeatedly asking Keunang to stand up against a wall. After Martinez appears to use a Taser on him, Keunang appears to take swings at the officers or throw his arms about wildly.
In the video, Keunang falls to the ground before multiple officers try to subdue him, and Volasgis — a rookie officer at the time who is no longer employed by the LAPD — starts shouting “He’s got my gun!” just before the fatal shots are fired.
An autopsy report showed that Keunang was shot six times and had methamphetamine in his system at the time of his death.
Attorneys for Keunang’s family alleged that officers disregarded their training and allowed the encounter to become violent almost immediately. Joshua Piovia-Scott, an attorney for the plaintiffs, alleged that Keunang “did not, in fact, have his (Volasgis’) gun, nor did he ever have his gun,” and also said that an LAPD investigation found none of Keunang’s DNA or fingerprints on any of Volasgis’ equipment.
Then-LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said at the time that Keunang was a robbery suspect and that evidence supported reports he had tried to grab Volasgis’ gun.
The settlement was initially approved on a 10-1 vote, with Councilman Joe Buscaino, a former LAPD officer, casting thedissenting vote. Later in the session, the council voted to reconsider the item and approved it on a vote of 12-2, with Councilman Mitchell Englander also opposing the payment.
Englander, a reserve officer with the LAPD, was not present during the first vote.