No One Stood Up For Sean, Slain on Skid Row

An unarmed Cameroonian man, who suffered from mental health issues, was shot four times by the police. Where are the protests this time?

His name was Sean, though his last name is currently unknown. Until his death Sunday, Sean lived in a tent outside the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles’ Skid Row. Sean’s neighbors nicknamed him “Africa” in honor of his homeland of Cameroon. He told a nearby resident that he’d been living in the area for four or five months after leaving a nearby mental institution, though another resident claimed he was there for 12. A little over one day has passed since Sean’s death and many of the critical details about his life are difficult to verify. The LAPD has yet to release Sean’s last name, for instance. They aren’t confirming his first name, either. Government-issued ID cards are relatively uncommon among the homeless; the only way journalists learned Sean’s exact age of 39 was from the city coroner’s report.

A rain-soaked protest was held in Pershing Square the night of Sean's death but if there was a protest in downtown Los Angeles on Monday, I could not find it. A march to LAPD HQ was scheduled for Tuesday.

A little after 8 PM Monday night, two ambulances were parked next to the site of Sean's demise, but they were there for a fresh injury. One of the ambulance drivers blipped the siren as he pulled from the curb, and a man across San Pedro St. threw up his hands and yelled, "I didn't do it!" The tension among Skid Row residents shows no sign of subsiding.

What is known about Sean is that his life ended around noontime Sunday courtesy of five gunshots leaving four bullet wounds delivered by three LAPD officers. Sean’s death was captured on at least two cellphone videos and one security camera outside the Union Rescue Mission. All three videos have been posted online, the most popular of which was viewed over a million times before being removed from Facebook for its graphic content.

Of the three videos, the most comprehensive happens to be the one with the least emotion. Though the Union Rescue Mission’s security camera footage lacks audio, it shows the altercation from a higher angle and for greater length than either of the two smartphone recordings. Four LAPD officers are visible from the beginning, grouped around the zippered doorway to Sean’s tent, attempting to extricate him.

Like many incidents of brief intensity, the prologue takes far longer than the actual event. The four officers stand around waiting for Sean for over a minute. We see the tent rustle as Sean moves inside. One of the officers shuffles around, hands on his hips. Backup arrives next—a fifth officer joins the group. A cyclist intends to bypass the scene, slows down, and begins to walk his bike. Out of a Parisian-style public toilet next to the tent, a man in a red sweater exits, looks to his left, notices the standoff, and continues walking away, zipping up his pants. The sixth officer joins. At this point, the video indicates over a minute and a half have passed since the beginning of the incident.

An internal LAPD investigation into the shooting has yet to reveal why the officers were called to the scene. One report claimed they were responding to calls of a robbery. The Union Rescue Mission’s executive director, Andy Bales, indicated that an argument between Sean and the resident in the next tent escalated into a fistfight, which prompted the 911 call, though Bales stopped short of stating that call came from his organization. Other reports mentioned that Sean was living with an untreated mental illness. What’s clear is that when officers arrived on the 500 block of San Pedro at 11:36 a.m., Sean’s tent was in violation of a 2007 compromise between the LAPD and the ACLU, giving the homeless the right to sleep on L.A.’s public streets between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. On-duty officers have a right to enforce this ordinance, though the security camera footage does show at least one other tent across the street.

The footage continues; the situation escalates. The man in the red sweater turns around to watch one officer dive headfirst into the tent. The two nearest officers bend down to assess the situation and draw their weapons. At least one onlooker has started recording video. By the two-minute mark, the zippered door has been opened and two officers have collapsed the rest of the tent around Sean, who still refuses to leave. He breaks free, spinning his way out of a handhold, flailing his arms and aiming toward the adjacent alleyway. Within seconds, Sean is subdued and lying on the ground. Out of nowhere, a woman in a gray hoodie runs toward the scene and picks up a loose nightstick dropped by one of the officers. She is tackled by another officer and immediately handcuffed.

For a few more agonizing seconds, the incident drags on. Then, around the 2 minute 40 mark, the onlookers suddenly recoil and run for cover. One of the men recording cellphone video runs off-screen. Another man lies prone on the sidewalk.

What the closed-circuit video failed to capture was any audio of the incident. The sickening click of a Taser delivering electricity. The first gunshot, followed quickly by four more. And most critically, the voices of the men involved. After reviewing the incident footage himself, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said, “You can hear the young officer who is primarily engaged in the confrontation saying that, ‘He has my gun. He has my gun.’ And he says it several times.”

Naturally, others find the on-duty probationary officer’s language more difficult to decipher. But Chief Beck is drawing from different information than the general public—two of the officers involved in the shooting were wearing body cameras as part of the city’s pilot program to outfit every officer on the LAPD. Anonymous sources are already saying that the imagery from the body cameras is inconclusive, though the audio is likely better, as it is closer to the source. The plan to purchase 7,000 cameras was announced by Mayor Eric Garcetti in December 2014, though only a fraction of officers have been equipped since then. The policy on releasing these videos to the public is undetermined and the police will have to move fast if they want to stave off trial by YouTube.