Crime & Justice

Excessive force verdict in Skid Row killing leads to $1.9M settlement

Charly
Charly "Africa" Keunang.
Courtesy of Ventura County Sheriff's Office

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In the first case in which LAPD officers’ body cameras captured the fatal shooting of a suspect, a federal jury Thursday found two officers used excessive force in the 2015 killing of a homeless man on L.A.'s Skid Row. Lawyers for both sides then agreed on a settlement in which the city would pay the man's family $1.95 million, according to Dan Stormer, one of the family's attorneys.

The jury in the civil wrongful death case found that Sgt. Chand Syed and Officer Francisco Martinez used excessive force in a confrontation that ended in the death of Charly Keunang. 

The L.A. City Council must still approve the settlement.

Stormer said the jury did not find that a third officer, Daniel Torres, used excessive force.

The decision by the civil jury of seven women and one man is the first official condemnation of the officers’ actions. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and the civilian Police Commission decided the officers followed department policy when they used deadly force. L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey determined the officers acted legally.

The backstory

The killing of Keunang, 39, on March 1, 2015, captured national attention amid an intense debate over police use of force and sparked angry protests over how the LAPD treats mentally ill people on Skid Row. Keunang, a Cameroonian whose nickname was Africa, had schizophrenia and depressive disorder, according to his family’s attorneys.

The question at the center of the case was whether Keunang was trying to grab one of the officers' guns as they attempted to take him into custody following reports he had robbed a man and threatened him with a baseball bat.

Body cam video played a key role in the case, with attorneys for both the city and Keunang's family arguing that it proved their case.

At one point, attorneys went frame by frame through video captured by the camera worn on the chest of Sgt. Chand Syed. Another video shot by a bystander to the incident went viral months before the LAPD released footage from officers at the scene.

What did videos show?

This is where the two sides differed greatly.

The police commission’s inspector general wrote in his report that the video showed Keunang holding onto an officer’s gun.

The LAPD said two enhanced images from the body cam video showed Keunang's hand and fingers on the officer's gun.

An attorney for Keunang's family said they had also viewed enhanced video images, but didn't see Keunang grab the gun.

The videos

(WARNING: The following videos contains graphic language and violence.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40Wgj84oKFs&bpctr=1525802240

Bystander video

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxyy8mMh2JM&feature=youtu.be

What else was at issue?

Attorneys spent considerable time during the trial focusing on whether officers created an unnecessary violent confrontation by agitating Keunang with their own actions.

Officers’ display of their batons and a Taser as they approached Keunang were techniques taught to police to "calm the situation, to gain compliance," retired San Jose police sergeant Ed Flosi told the jury. Flosi is often paid to testify as a use of force expert for the L.A. city attorney's office, which is responsible for defending the LAPD.

Former L.A. County Sheriff’s Lt. Roger Clark, who often is paid to testify as a use of force expert for families suing the LAPD, told the jury that the display of a Taser and batons were like pouring "gasoline" on a confrontation with a mentally ill person. He described Keunang as "uncooperative" but not "combative or assaultive" until an officer tased him.

That stands in contrast to a report from Beck: When officers approached Keunang, he "started becoming more and more violent, using very aggressive words and stances and mannerisms with a clenched fist and tense muscles," the chief stated in a report to the L.A. Police Commission – even though at that point officers had not come into physical contact with Keunang and had not observed him striking anyone.

 

When he crawled into his tent, officers pulled backed the tent, the report stated. Officers used a Taser on Keunang as he approached one of them, but "it is unknown" if both electrodes hit his body and he was electrically shocked, according to the report.

Body camera and bystander cell phone video show Keunang clearly agitated at this point. The report said he moved toward one of the officers "swinging his arms wildly," and that one officer then punched Keunang in the face.

At one point, a voice in the bodycam video can be heard saying: "Stop resisting, stop resisting."

As other officers swarmed Keunang and tried to take him into custody, one of the officers yelled, "he has my gun," prompting two officers to open fire, according to the report.

For Stormer, the shooting was an example of how officers expect mentally ill homeless people to respond like someone who is mentally stable. 

"It’s not going to happen," Stormer said before the trial. "You have to use those skills which you’ve been taught in how to deal with the homeless and people suffering from mental illness."

He added, "it’s a systemic problem where the LAPD refuses to acknowledge its failures in dealing with homeless people on Skid Row."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Syed and Martinez were found personally liable for Keunang's death. KPCC regrets the error.

Read the lawsuit