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Body Cameras Shed New Light On Skid Row Killing Of Homeless Man

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Back in March, a homeless man on L.A.'s Skid Row came out of his tent and was approached by police. A witness recorded part of what happened next. The video later went viral.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCEVERS: The homeless man, Charly Keunang, seems to wrestle with police, including officers Frank Martinez (ph) and Joshua Volasgis. Then Keunang is shot dead by police. Police say Keunang grabbed Officer Volasgis' gun. But journalist Jeff Sharlet says Keunang did not have the gun.

Sharlet has been spent months researching this story for a piece just published in GQ Magazine. He was able to see additional video - footage from body cameras worn by two officers. And he's also listened to interviews from some of the officers who were involved that day.

JEFF SHARLET: We learned that the account of this as a - sort of a wild man who is out-of-control that was offered up to the public is not correct. We watch the body cams. We see a man whose feet almost never move, whose hands are open and who was saying again and again, let me express myself. Just let me express myself.

MCEVERS: And then at some point, you write, Charly turns his back and goes into his tent.

SHARLET: Yeah, he seems exasperated. The senior officer is not alarmed. He's saying come on, brother. You've got to get out of the tent. He gets up. He picks up something very small, and they say put your hands up. It looks as if he is about to put his hands up. But we'll never know for sure because at that moment Martinez seems to tase him in the back. And from there, it's the end.

MCEVERS: Right. And so from there - and this is what we've seen in the video that everybody's seen. Charlie gets very physical. Yeah?

SHARLET: Even what we've seen in the video - and I thought this, too. You look at that, and it looks like this guy is twirling and trying to punch them. And then I saw the body cams which, of course, are a lot closer up. And you see that instead of swinging at them with fists that he is almost falling down every second, his hands open. He seems to be twisting to try and get the taser wires out of his back. He's not punching. It is physical, yes. Certainly the officers are justified at that point in tackling him. But it is not the wild attack that has been described.

MCEVERS: They tackle him. And that's when the officers say he's got my gun. He's got my gun. And then they shoot him.

SHARLET: Yeah. You have four officers holding him down. It's Joshua Volasgis, the rookie, who says he's got my gun. He's got my gun. Volasgis will later say that Charly had somehow managed to overcome the - sort of the two safety measures on the holster and to pull it out while he was pressed on the ground. You know, it's a game of Twister. But I suppose it's physically possible.

What becomes more difficult is Volasgis will say that Charly's hand on his gun only let go after the first shot was fired. But when we look at the body cam, we see that not to be the case.

MCEVERS: So are you saying that from what you saw, Charly's hand was never on the gun?

SHARLET: I can't say that definitely. Volasgis' right hip where he carries his gun is away from the camera. We certainly don't see him in a position where he could have easily been grabbing it. You see the moments after the shooting, they back up. And they back away from the body. And they say to Officer Volasgis you got your gun. And he looks on his hip, and there's his gun.

MCEVERS: Still in the holster.

SHARLET: In the holster. He un-holsters it - one of the three times he'll un-holster it after the shooting, none of which were mentioned when the LAPD released a photograph of the gun which did indeed have some kind of malfunction partially in its holster. They didn't mention that he had un-holstered it three times. I'm not a lawyer or a cop. I'm just a journalist, but that troubles my evidentiary standards.

MCEVERS: Right because at the time of the shooting, L.A. police chief Charlie Beck said, you know, that the gun showed signs of a struggle, that a round had been partially dislodged from the chamber of the gun. The magazine wasn't in place. I mean, what do you make of that?

SHARLET: That's all correct. That could be from tumbling around on the ground. It could be Volasgis trying to un-holster his gun. He seems to be having trouble un-holstering his gun. It could've happened at that moment. It is possible that at some moment that we can't see on the video Charly had his hand on the gun. Even so I don't think that really changes the fact that you have four cops beating and tasing a man for the crime of saying let me express myself.

MCEVERS: I mean, so what do you make of this on the part of the cops? I mean, is it - where does it fall between sinister and mistake?

SHARLET: That's very hard for me to say. And I think in writing this, I tried to stay so close to just what we can see. So much so that even - I just said for the crime of - killing a man for the crime of saying let me express myself. And I think even that's wrong. Things are happening fast, but the mistakes that were made begin long before that. They begin with the policing on Skid Row, the broken windows approach, the zero tolerance approach. Charly's crime - Charly's crime was that he was in his tent. He was at home.

MCEVERS: That's Jeff Sharlet. He's a contributing writer for GQ talking about his reporting on the police shooting of a man named Charly Keunang earlier this year. Jeff, thank you so much.

SHARLET: Thank you, Kelly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.