#LAPDshooting – The Right Questions

A few days ago, before we had full information, I wrote a piece for CNN on the shooting of a homeless man named “Africa” on Skid Row in Los Angeles. Here’s my core argument:

The media and the investigation will likely focus on whether Africa was reaching for an officer’s gun when he got killed.

This is the wrong question. Instead, we need to look at why the officers decided to begin the encounter by aggressively charging into the victim’s tent, dragging him out, and demanding compliance.

Indeed, that’s just what happened. Article after article after tweet on whether or not Africa had his hand on the officer’s gun. I added:

It is necessary to ask why the officers thought the best approach was to grab him, drag him into the open and corral him, and to hold the LAPD accountable to best practices in such situations.

As we learn more about the man who was killed and the situation, I maintain that these remain the right questions – taking the broad assessment of the strategic and tactical situation, choices made by the officers, and the consequences of those choices. It may be that the officers made good decisions or not. Asking the right questions doesn’t pre-determine the answers, just that you’re going to get a good picture of the situation.

We’ve learned a lot more about Africa. First, we learned that he was Charley Robinet, a convicted bank robber who once pistol whipped a guard, but also someone diagnosed with psychiatric disabilities in 2003 and hospitalized. The French government, though, says he was not in fact Charley Robinet, as that French passport was stolen. It is unclear to me at this time whether or not “Africa” was in fact a convicted bank robber and violent offender, whether he was the individual diagnosed and hospitalized with psychiatric disabilities, or anything else about his past. Please send me updated information if you find some.

Meanwhile, the LAPD police chief and LA mayor are touting their mental health training for cops.

“All officers are trained for instance in dealing with the capacity of mental health issues that people have out there,” the mayor said. “These (LAPD) officers get an additional training above and beyond that.”

The mayor’s point was underscored earlier by Police Chief Charlie Beck, who said officers working on Skid Row are trained in identifying behavior, advising support agencies and defusing sometimes violent situations.

“Several of the officers had participated and completed our most extensive mental illness training – over a 36-hour course,” Beck said.

This is, then, the precise example of the limitations of CIT and related training, because a process that leads to a violent confrontation with an unarmed disabled individual is a failure. It may be a legal failure. It may not have violated departmental processes. But it’s a failure.

There is no information presently that the officers believed Africa to be an armed offender with a violent criminal past. My best information is that they believed him to be a potentially unstable disabled homeless man who was a suspect in a robbery. Such a situation, given the best practices in “defusing violent situations,” would not necessarily mandate ripping up the tent and sparking the violent conversation.

My guess is that the officers thought Africa might have had a weapon in his tent. That’s not unreasonable, given the circumstances. But I’d like to hear the discussion of what de-escalation tactics were tried or why they were not applicable to this particular incident.

Unfortunately, all the media discourse is focused on whether or not he reached for a gun. We must ask the right questions. Not just for this case, but for the next, and the next, and the next.

Because only a few hours after Africa was shot, a black man in a mental health crisis was repeatedly tased by Oklahoma City police until he died.

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