Tuesday, August 21, in a 12-2 vote, the LA City Council approved a $1.95 million settlement with the family of Charly “Africa” Keunang. The two dissenters both had ties to the LAPD. A proposed settlement agreement was reached in federal court on May 10, after a jury held two LAPD officers liable in the March 2015 Skid Row shooting death of Mr. Keunang, a mentally ill, unarmed, homeless man. HSR attorneys Joshua Piovia-Scott, Dan Stormer, and Shaleen Shanbhag represented Mr. Keunang’s family in their claim that police escalated the confrontation with Mr. Keunang, which led to his death. The settlement monies will go to Mr. Keunang’s parents Heleine Tchayou and Isaac Keunang, and to his sister Line Marquise Foming.
In 2016, the LA Police Commission found that the Keunang shooting was justified and the Los Angeles District Attorney declined to file criminal charges against the officers, stating that the officers “acted lawfully in self-defense and in defense of others.” In the course of the trial, LAPD attorneys argued that the officers were justified in shooting Keunang because rookie officer Volasgis had screamed that Keunang had his gun. However, an LAPD investigation found that neither Keunang’s fingerprints nor DNA were found on Volsagis’ equipment. Joshua Piovia Scott said that Keunang “did not, in fact, have his (Volasgis’) gun, nor did he ever have his gun.”
In the course of the trial, the federal jury decided unanimously that Officer Francisco Martinez, who tased and ultimately killed Mr. Keunang, used excessive force and that Sergeant Chand Syed breached his duty to intervene. The settlement was reached before the damages stage of the trial. “The jury verdict sends a strong message that this kind of conduct, this excessive force, this failure to resolve issues without using deadly force, is not something that will be tolerated in Los Angeles,” said Piovia-Scott.
Dan Stormer said the case could not have been won if it were not for the body camera footage and he said it showed officers had the opportunity to deescalate the situation but instead became more aggressive and violent to Keunang. Video footage from a bystander’s cellphone, the officers’ body-worn cameras and a surveillance camera showed Keunang pleading repeatedly with officers to “listen to me.” In response, the officers threatened, tased, punched, tackled, pinned to the ground, tased again and then finally shot Keunang 5 times. Joshua Piovia Scott said, “The officers basically did every single thing that their training says they are not to do. It was the officers’ actions that escalated this situation and caused it to spiral out of control.”
The videotaped killing of Keunang was the first LAPD bodycam footage to be released that showed the killing of a citizen. It engendered national debate about excessive use of force by law enforcement, and prompted calls for better officer training to de-escalate potentially violent situations, and to better handle encounters with the mentally ill.
In an interview with Courthouse News, Dan Stormer said “Hopefully, the city will look at the payouts they are making because of officer misconduct and start to train and limit the violent conduct of the officers.”