Cell phone video (below) of a confrontation between a homeless man and four members of the Los Angeles Police Department shows police fatally shooting the man, firing multiple shots at close range.
Some of the officers involved in the March 1, 2015 shooting were once part of the Safer Cities Initiative. Officers received special training on homelessness and mental health issues as part of the program, which aimed to reduce crime on Skid Row—an area of LA beset by despair and poverty. The program has been criticized for arrests of homeless people for petty offenses and increasing conflict between police and the community, but has also been praised for its attention to mental health.
The victim, a 39-year-old man known as Africa, had just completed a decade-long stint in a mental health institution. Like many people struggling with mental health conditions, he ended up on the streets. As many as a third of homeless people struggle with mental health, and mental health challenges are especially prevalent on Skid Row.
As with most police shootings, accounts in this case vary. The confrontation began after police received reports of a robbery. Some reports indicate that Africa had tipped over the tent of another homeless man; another report says he was fighting with someone in his tent; and others indicate no obvious violence from Africa. Witnesses say that when Africa refused to come out of his tent, police officers used a stun gun and forcibly removed him. The video shows officers struggling with the man and pushing him down, where the man continued to struggle. Moments later, at least five shots can be heard.
Police claim that Africa appeared to reach for an officer’s gun. At one point on the witness video, someone can be heard saying “Drop the gun” twice. No clear-cut evidence has emerged that Africa actually grabbed a gun or posed a danger beyond physically resisting and flailing, though footage—yet to be released—from body cameras worn by at least one officer may add context, and there may be other surveillance video. The LAPD claims that officers attempted to Taser the man before shooting him.
Homelessness, Mental Health, and Policing
No one knows exactly how many people are shot by police each year or how many of those people struggle with mental health issues. The FBI, Department of Justice, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all keep numbers on police shootings, but those figures are based largely on self-reporting and differ wildly from one another. A Wall Street Journal investigation of 105 police departments found 550 unreported killings between 2007 and 2012, suggesting that there may be significantly more police killings than official numbers suggest.
People with mental health conditions are frequent crime victims, and may be at higher risk to be killed by police. An investigation by the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, for example, found that 42% of Maine police shooting victims had mental health issues. Fifty-eight percent of those who died from their injuries faced mental health challenges.
The LAPD and Violence Against Citizens
The LAPD has long been criticized for its behavior toward citizens, with critics citing high-profile cases such as the roadside beating of Rodney King. Between 2001 and 2013, the city operated under a consent decree to implement a host of reforms. The decree was the result of a Department of Justice investigation that concluded the department was overrun with racism and corruption.
In 2013, the decree was lifted by a judge who cited significant progress by the department. Since the lifting of the decree, though, a number of high-profile incidents have increased criticism. Officers have been caught making racist comments and publicly singing an offensive song about Michael Brown. Shootings of unarmed citizens, such as the August 2014 shooting of Ezell Ford, have drawn national attention to the department. Ford, too, had mental health issues.
- Barry, R., and Jones, C. (2014, December 3). Hundreds of police killings are uncounted in federal stats. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/hundreds-of-police-killings-are-uncounted-in-federal-statistics-1417577504
- Holland, G., Mather, K., Parvini, S., and Winton, R. (2015, March 2). Man went for gun during ‘brutal’ skid row struggle, LAPD chief says. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-lapd-shooting-20150302-story.html#page=1
- Lennard, N. (2012, December 10). Half of people shot by police are mentally ill, investigation finds. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2012/12/10/half_of_people_shot_by_police_are_mentally_ill_investigation_finds/
- Mental illness and homelessness[PDF]. (2009, July). Washington, DC: National Coalition for the Homeless.
- Safer cities initiative. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.crimesolutions.gov/ProgramDetails.aspx?ID=182
- Townes, C. (2015, March 02). Man who just finished 10-year stint in mental health institution shot dead by police. Retrieved from http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2015/03/02/3628412/police-kill-homeless-man-on-skid-row/
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