LOS ANGELES - Los Angeles police shot and killed a homeless man who grabbed at an officer's gun during a videotaped scuffle, authorities said on Monday, in an incident highlighting the often volatile interactions between law enforcement and mentally ill residents of the city's skid row.
The man, known by the street name Africa, had been living for weeks in a tent outside the Union Rescue Mission building where Sunday's shooting occurred and had a history of violent, erratic behaviour, the mission's director said.
The shooting, footage of which circulated widely on the Internet, marked the latest in a string of incidents that have put police across the country under heightened scrutiny over the use of lethal force, especially against minorities and the mentally disturbed.
Local civil rights activists called on the city police commission to hold a hearing on the police use of force on skid row, a square-mile area downtown that ranks as one of the largest concentrations of homeless people in United States.
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said officers responding to a robbery call outside the rescue mission "acted compassionately" toward the man who was identified as the suspect "up until the time that force was required."
He said the man fought with officers when they tried to take him into custody, then kept resisting as they tried to subdue him with a stun gun. After falling to the sidewalk, the suspect grabbed at an officer's holstered pistol, precipitating the shooting, Beck told a news conference. Police said the man was not carrying a weapon of his own.
Bystander video of the incident shows the man swinging his arms wildly at a group of officers before he is knocked to the pavement, and four officers struggle to restrain him.
Someone in the video is heard repeatedly shouting: "Drop the gun!" and several gunshots ring out, as bystanders gather at the scene shouting at police: "They just shot that man," and "Ain't nobody got no gun."
Andy Bale, chief executive of the rescue mission, said the shooting immediately increased racial tensions between police and the homeless community on skid row.
The man shot was black, and police Commander Andrew Smith said one of the four officers directly involved in the struggle, the one whose weapon was tampered with, was African-American. The three others opened fire on the man, he said.
Questions about the incident seemed to focus primarily on how police conducted themselves in approaching an individual who may have been mentally ill.
Beck declined to discuss the man's mental history, but characterized the man's death as an extreme tragedy that "highlights the homeless and mental illness issues that trouble us in our skid row area."
Nearly 3,500 homeless people inhabit the skid row section, a third of whom suffer from mental illness, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
The Los Angeles Times reported that the man who died had spent time in a mental facility. Bale said the man previously exhibited a mix of polite cooperation and periodic aggression.
He had helped workers wash down the sidewalks outside the mission on occasion but was also involved in a handful of physical altercations in the neighborhood in recent weeks, including one where he and a few others dragged a mission worker into an outdoor toilet and "beat him up a bit," Bale said.
Bale said surveillance footage taken outside the mission showed the man shoving a homeless neighbour about 40 minutes before the shooting, which may have been part of what precipitated the robbery report that drew police to the scene.
Bale said he believed the man was an African immigrant, and that relatives abroad had "asked him to come home."
Police said an internal investigation had begun. The Los Angeles Police Protective League, an officers union, urged the public to reserve judgment, noting the video suggested the officers believed they "were in life-threatening danger."