Skid Row Shooting Puts Body Cams in Focus


     LOS ANGELES (CN) – Through a looking glass of shaky cellphone video, five officers grapple with a homeless man. With the sunlight behind them, it’s sometimes hard to make them out: silhouettes of bodies enmeshed curbside. Someone off-camera says, “Hell, no.” Five shots ring out.
     Disturbing video of LAPD officers shooting a homeless man known only as “Africa” in Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles went viral after it was posted on Facebook. The 4-minute snapshot of the fatal encounter on Sunday afternoon left the same uncertainty and questions about police brutality that have lingered since the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
     In Garner’s case, cellphone video of an incident with New York City police officers was not enough to convince a grand jury to press charges after an officer placed him in a chokehold.
     The shooting of Brown in Ferguson, Mo. led to calls for all officers to wear body cameras. Late last year, Los Angeles announced that it would outfit LAPD officers with 7,000 of them.
     Police turned to body cams as a kind of salve to the confusion, anger and speculation that occurs after social media dumps video lowlights onto our cellphones and laptops. Instead, questions about their effectiveness remain.
     While Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said the body cameras of the officer at the scene “offers a unique perspective” on Africa’s shooting, he said the public could not expect to see the video anytime soon.
     Beck was quick to defend the officers who shot and killed Africa, who was a robbery suspect. He said Monday that evidence supported reports that the man had tried to grab an officer’s gun.
     At a makeshift memorial at the site where Africa shot on San Pedro Street a small group of protesters gathered Monday, blowing whistles and chanting, “Justice for Africa … Stop Killer Cops!”
     Africa’s blue tent was scrunched into a pile on the sidewalk. Bouquets of red, yellow and white flowers were strewn on top and around it.
     David Martinez lives in a building on San Pedro between Fifth and Sixth Streets, close to where the incident happened. He said he was skeptical that body cameras would make much difference in the way the LAPD polices the area.
     “Let’s be honest. Does the camera help? We had the camera on Rodney King and that didn’t do anything,” Martinez said. “All the camera is, is that we have proof of what happened. But apparently the authorities and the judges, they don’t seem to care about that type of proof.”
     Tall, stocky and unimposing, Martinez saw no reason why the video should not be shown to the public.
     “Why not? What are you afraid of?” he said.
     Hector Villagra of ACLU of Southern California also thinks the LAPD should release the video.
     “LAPD has pledged to conduct a thorough investigation, which is a step in the right direction,” Villagra said in a statement. “This investigation presents an opportunity for the Police Commission to respond to this tragedy in a fully transparent way, starting with the release of footage from body-worn video as quickly as possible.”
     Despite opposition from some city residents, the LAPD has said that it will not publicly release body camera footage unless a court asks for it.
     “I think people misunderstand transparency as having everybody and all the public have access to everything. And it isn’t so much that as having the ability for oversight by multiple entities outside of the Police Department,” Beck told the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. “I think that’s the meaning of transparency. I don’t think that transparency means we post every interaction on YouTube.”
     On Monday, Beck said it would “not be proper” to make the video publicly available.
     “If there is a criminal proceeding in this or if there’s a civil proceeding in this, we will make all evidence available through those proceedings,” Beck said.
     Skid Row resident Reginald Taylor said it will take more than 7,000 cameras to ease tension between the homeless and the police.
     “It doesn’t do any good, because they’re doing the same thing,” Taylor said of the body cams. “So, what are they going to do? Are they going to have an inquiry about it? Then they’re going to say it was justified.
     “This is something that’s been going on for a long time,” he said.

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