3 cops in LA Skid Row death had training on mentally ill
Chief says initial signs show that the officers used what they had learned
By Tami Abdollah
LOS ANGELES — The three officers who fired their weapons in a videotaped struggle that left a homeless man dead were veterans of the beat on Los Angeles' downtrodden Skid Row who had special training to deal with the homeless and mentally ill, police leaders said.
Police Chief Charlie Beck said the officers had "completed our most extensive mental illness training over a 36-hour course."
But the rookie officer who cried out that the man had his gun, leading to the shooting, had considerably less experience, and police didn't immediately say how much training he had received in dealing with the mentally ill. All officers must go through at least an 11-hour course.
Beck said that despite the way the confrontation ended, initial signs showed that the officers used what they had learned.
"The way you have conversations, the way you offer options, the way that you give some space, the body language that you portray, the way that you escalate, all of that is part of the training," Beck said at news conference Monday, the day after the shooting. "I will make judgment on that when I review the totality of the investigation, but on the face of it, it appears they did try all of that."
The specialized training came under the nationwide Safer Cities Initiative, designed to tone down encounters between police and people on the street.
The chief also provided a narrative of the struggle that was rare so soon after an officer-involved shooting, the video of which had been viewed by millions online.
Footage showed the homeless man, whose name has not been released, reaching toward the rookie officer's waistband, Beck said. The gun was found partly cocked and jammed with a round of ammunition in the chamber and another in the ejection port, indicating a struggle for the weapon, Beck said.
"You can hear the young officer who was primarily engaged in the confrontation saying that 'He has my gun. He has my gun,'" Beck said. "He says it several times, with conviction."
Then three other officers opened fire.
The man was black, as is the rookie officer who was just short of completing his probationary year on the force, police said.
Sunday's violence had echoes of the August police shooting of 25-year-old Ezell Ford, whose death in a struggle with LA officers brought demonstrations in the city. Ford was unarmed. Police said he was shot after reaching for an officer's gun.
Mayor Eric Garcetti said he and the police chief needed to respond quickly to reassure residents that there is a robust investigation into the shooting, which occurred in the downtown area that is home to the city's highest concentration of homeless people.
Video came from multiple perspectives, including two witnesses recording from their phones and cameras worn by two of the officers who fired their weapons.
Beck said officers had arrived to investigate a reported robbery and the suspect refused to obey their commands and became combative.
A security camera outside a homeless shelter about 75 feet away showed the man pushed over a neighbor's tent and the two had a dispute. When officers arrived, they tried to speak to the suspect.
He turned and jumped into his tent, and officers appeared to pull it up and over him to try to roust him from inside. The man jumped out flailing and kicking before ending up on the ground.
Beck said officers didn't know if the suspect was arming himself. Stun guns "appeared to have little effect, and he continued to violently resist," Beck said.
One witness began filming from a closer perspective.
As the man took swings, four officers wrestled him to the ground. The struggle became blurry and distant, but shouting could be heard, followed by five apparent gunshots.
Exactly what happened in the last moments of the struggle is unclear.
A memorial sprung up Monday where the shooting occurred. White roses were placed over a tent, blankets and clothing belonging to the man known as "Africa."
James Attaway, 48, said the man's first name was Shawn, but he nicknamed him because he was from Africa. They met six months ago, and Africa had been living on the street for about a year, Attaway said.
They met talking about God and had done that earlier Sunday. "He was on the spiritual side, very intelligent," Attaway said.
An estimated 1,700 homeless people live on Skid Row. Many of them have mental illness and addiction and are no strangers to the police.
Cmdr. Andrew Smith said the man had previous encounters with officers, though he would not elaborate.
The Los Angeles Police Department's inspector general and the city's district attorney are investigating the shooting.
Two of the officers suffered minor injuries, including the rookie officer, who is on crutches. All four officers are on paid leave.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press