Lead Story West Edition

Settlement reached in 2015 Skid Row shooting death

LOS ANGELES — A settlement of $1.95 million was reached May 10 to resolve all claims stemming from the 2015 Skid Row shooting death of a mentally ill transient from Cameroon, hours after a jury found two Los Angeles police officers liable for financial damages in the deadly encounter.

The settlement, which requires City Council approval, resolves all fees, costs and claims and closes any future litigation over the death of Charly “Africa” Keunang, attorneys announced.

The eight-member jury unanimously determined that Officer Francisco Martinez deprived 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.

Before the jury could begin the damages phase of the trial, lawyers for the Keunang family and the city hammered out a “global” settlement.

“There’s no amount of money that’s going to bring back the loved one,” U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. said at the conclusion of the federal civil trial in downtown Los Angeles.

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.

The panel cleared a third defendant, Officer Daniel Torres, while former Officer Joshua Volasgis — who was named as a defendant — had been expected to face proceedings in state court, but the settlement effectively ends that case, said Deputy City Attorney Christian R. Bojorquez.

The plaintiffs argued that the officers transformed what began as a calm afternoon interaction in the 500 block of South San Pedro Street into a chaotic, violent encounter that ended Keunang’s life. The case focused national attention on police shootings because the encounter was caught on video by a bystander and quickly went viral after it was posted on Facebook.

It was also recorded on body cameras worn by Syed and Martinez, making it one of the first police shootings with body camera evidence. That footage was released to the public in January.

“Members of LAPD refused to follow their training and unnecessarily escalated” the incident “and killed an unarmed mentally ill man,” Keunang family attorney Joshua Piovia-Scott alleged in his opening statement.

Bojorquez argued that if Keunang had complied with the officers’ requests, “we wouldn’t be here today.”

The Keunang family’s attorneys argued during the eight-day trial that the officers allowed the incident to spiral out of control so quickly that they “shot Mr. Keunang just six minutes after they arrived on the scene.”

An autopsy report showed that Keunang was shot six times and had methamphetamine in his system at the time of his death. Two shots to his chest were considered contact wounds that left gunpowder on the skin.

Videotape of the struggle played for the jury by the plaintiffs showed Volasgis — a rookie officer at the time who is no longer employed by the Los Angeles Police Department — shouting “He’s got my gun!” referring to Keunang just before the fatal shots are fired.

Piovia-Scott alleged that Keunang “did not, in fact, have [Volasgis’] gun, nor did he ever have his gun,” and also alleged that an LAPD investigation found none of Keunang’s DNA or fingerprints on any of Volasgis’ equipment.

In February 2016, the Police Commission ruled that Syed, Martinez and Torres were justified in shooting Keunang. Chief Charlie Beck said at the time that Keunang was a robbery suspect and that evidence supported reports he had tried to grab a rookie officer’s gun.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office announced in December 2016 that no criminal charges would be filed against the officers who shot Keunang, finding that the shooting was an act of self-defense.