LOS ANGELES — Criminal investigations leading to the prosecution of police officers involved in the shooting of unarmed victims are the kind of challenges the justice system needs, according to attorneys representing the family of a Skid Row man who was fatally shot by police.
The recent charges against six Baltimore police officers in connection with the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died of a severe spinal cord injury while in custody, is a small breath of fresh air to civil rights attorneys Dan Stormer and Joshua Piovia-Scott. They are representing the family of Charly Leundeu Keunang, a Cameroon man whose fatal encounter with Los Angeles police on Skid Row went viral March 1.
“We’re sending letters to [District Attorney] Jackie Lacey to ensure they are conducting a thorough investigation on the reckless misconduct by LAPD,” Piovia-Scott said during a phone interview this week. “We’re also requesting both state and federal Department of Justice pursue a criminal prosecution.”
In a need for greater transparency and accountability, the family is pushing LAPD to release video footage recorded by officers who wore body cameras during the incident, Piovia-Scott said.
In Ferguson with the shooting of Michael Brown, and Staten Island with the chokehold death of Eric Garner, grand juries failed to indict officers for the killings.
Los Angeles has also seen its share of the use of force by police in the beatings of Marlene Pinnock and Clinton Alford, the non-fatal shooting of Jamar Nicholson and the deaths of Ezell Ford, Kendrec McDade and Keunang.
During a press conference outside the LAPD’s downtown headquarters April 30, Stormer said Keunang’s sister and parents have filed a $20 million claim against LAPD and the city over Keunang’s fatal shooting by police on Skid Row.
Stormer called the shooting “a despicable act,” with police officers now claiming “somehow they were entitled to brutally kill this man.”
The officers “violated every known principal of interaction with people that you can imagine in a police manual,” Stormer said.
The 43-year-old Keunang “was doing nothing,” Stormer said. “He was on the streets. He was bothering no one. … They’re the ones that initiated the force, they’re the ones who began this process in a way that resulted in his death.”
The shooting was “almost like an execution,” Stormer said, with autopsy results showing that Keunang “was held down, he was being pummeled, he was being hit with batons, he was being kicked and they shot him in the chest four times,” as well as twice in his arms, Stormer said.
Stormer was accompanied at last week’s press conference by Keunang’s sister, Line Marquise Foming, and mother, Heleine Tchayou, both Boston residents.
Foming said the shooting was “cop-created” and her younger brother died because of the “illegal actions” of the LAPD.
“I’m bringing this lawsuit to make sure that Charly’s memory is honored and that the police are held accountable,” Foming said.
Tchayou, speaking in French, said through sobs that Keunang was her only son and she “will never forget those images” on television of him being shot by police.
Police Chief Charlie Beck, referring to Keunang as “the bank robber,” told City News Service that he felt the claim is “the nature of policing in Los Angeles.”
He declined to respond in detail to the allegations, saying only that “the attorney has to do his job.”
The claim filed by Foming, Tchayou and Keunang’s father accuses the LAPD and its officers of excessive force, assault and battery, wrongful death and constitutional violations.
“Law enforcement officers are trained to de-escalate situations and to only use lethal force as a last resort,” the family said in the claim, a legal precursor to a civil suit. “The LAPD officers who killed Mr. Keunang violated these protocols and their reckless mistakes and misconduct resulted in this unnecessary death.”
Authorities have said Keunang struggled with one of the officers over his gun during an intense melee. A witness disputed the account.
The claim against the city says six LAPD officers “attacked Mr. Keunang, Tasing him, tackling him to the concrete and repeatedly striking him with their fists and batons. … The officers then shot Mr. Keunang six times from point-blank range as they held him down on the sidewalk.”
Millions of people viewed the confrontation after a witness uploaded a video of the altercation to Facebook. The shooting brought to light rising tensions between police and homeless people as downtown Los Angeles’ economic renaissance has left them behind.
Police officials said officers went to talk to Keunang about a robbery. An officer can be heard on the video making repeated comments about his gun, though his exact words are unclear, according to news reports.
Beck told reporters an officer said, “He has my gun.”
Stormer said the officer’s gun never came out of his holster. The video showed the officer removing his gun from the holster after the shooting.
In the coming weeks, the family is planning a wake and a funeral and will then send Keunang’s remains back to Cameroon where his father lives, Piovia-Scott said.