LAPD Chief: Homeless Man Grabbed Officer's Pistol Prior To Fatal Shooting

(FOX 11 / CNS) 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.

The video was apparently posted to Facebook within hours of the death by a man named Anthony Blackburn. It quickly went viral, being viewed 3.2 million times in 10 hours.

It original Facebook post with the video was taken down by Monday afternoon.

"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.

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.

It happened at about 12 p.m. in the area of 545 S. San Pedro Street. Officers were responding to simultaneous robbery and battering calls, said Sgt. William Batista of the Los Angeles Police Department's Media Relations Section.

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 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.

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.''

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.''

"He didn't have no weapon, they just shot him," a witness, Yolanda young, told FOX 11 Sunday evening. "They could have just wrestled him down and took him to jail, but they shot him five times. "

"When they couldn't apprehend him, that's when they backed up and just started shooting. Pow, pow, pow, pow. There was five of them. They could have apprehended him," added another witness, Ceola Waddell.

FOX 11 Reporter Phil Shuman's take:

It's easy to second guess police officers who find themselves in life or death situations with violent suspects they are trying to take into custody. It's also easy to question why at least five highly trained men can't subdue one unarmed homeless person. In addition, it's easy to blame a ''system'' where those suffering from mental illness and drug addiction have nowhere to go (or not enough places to go), so they end up living in tents or on sidewalks in the hellish part of Los Angeles known as "Skid Row."

All these issues and questions and problems came into play in the aftermath of Sunday afternoon's fatal shooting of a homeless man known only as ''Africa," believed to be struggling with mental health issues.

He was shot five times by the Los Angeles Police Department after they claim he fought with them and tried to grab one of their holstered pistols. Protestors who took to the streets of skid row Monday morning demanding action by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and the Los Angeles City Council was quick to cast this in a racial light, which may or may not be appropriate.

For what it's worth, the LAPD officer most engaged with the suspect, the officer whose gun the suspect supposedly grabbed for and may have gotten his hand on, is black.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, looking very stern as he talked to a huge crowd of reporters Monday, said his officers have been especially trained to deal with skid row residents, they tried non-lethal weapons (a Taser which supposedly didnt work) and tried to be compassionate until the suspect resisted and a ''use of force was required."

Beck said he also reviewed the video taken by a cell phone camera belonging to a witness as well as two new LAPD ''body cameras'' (video he won't yet release) and said he heard the officer state with conviction ''He has my gun." Others heard ''drop the gun, drop the gun." Clearly, the officer said something.

As for Beck, he only answered a few questions, and he didn't really answer mine about what was so "special'' about the 36 hours of "specialized'' training these officers (part of the Safer Streets initiative) receive, because it seems obvious based on the result that training didn't have its intended effect.

I asked Mayor Eric Garcetti the same question, in other words, what's the value of all this training if they just end up shooting someone anyway? Garcetti replied, "you shouldn't second guess officers in a fast moving situation."

But that's precisely the point, the officers are trained to ''slow down'' the situation, if you will.

Yes -- the suspect often dictates or controls what happens, and yes -- the officers may have initially tried to reason with the man. However, with all the problems of Skid Row known so well, you think they would have had a much better thought-out and rehearsed ''Plan B,'' so to speak, to make sure they don't place themselves in a situation where they have a brawl on the sidewalk with a potentially deranged man who is even in a position to reach for a cop's gun.

So here we are. Again.

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