People are always divided on solutions for homelessness in Los Angeles. You'll meet some “Get a job” kinds of folks just like you'll meet "Take this handout” kinds of folks. You'll also come across “Homeless... what? Ew!” types. There's also the "Shoot them in the chest several times” camp, which is where two deputies from the LA County Sheriff’s Department fall.
Last Sunday around 3:30 PM, two deputies from the Sheriff’s Transit Services Bureau stopped under Interstate 10 and shot a homeless man named Donald five times in the chest. Donald had reportedly approached them waving a wooden stick over his head.
The Los Angeles Times merely regurgitated the Department’s press release in their Monday coverage, despite the dozens of witnesses available. The official version of the story goes like this:
“Deputies with the Transit Services Bureau came into contact with the man when he suddenly armed himself with a wooden stick. He then advanced toward the deputies with the wooden stick overhead, prompting them to open fire. Officials said the man, who has not been identified, was taken to a hospital, where he died.”
That’s all the information the Department would provide, citing the investigation as “ongoing,” when I contaced them. They refused to answer my questions about the caliber of the stick or the identities of the deputies involved. They gave me no explanation as to why the deputies eschewed nonlethal means to subdue the allegedly maniacal and stick-wielding homeless man.
The spot where Donald was killed
The department also declined to comment on the racial aspect of the shooting—perhaps because it seemed somewhat controversial, if not surprising: black homeless guy, two white deputies.
“I heard pop-pop-pop-pop really quickly and then a fifth, like they had waited for something,” explained Julie Thornhill, 25, an eyewitness and homeless neighbor of the deceased.
She continued, “Y’know when they go and check someone’s pulse? On the neck? Well, they just kicked him. Went right up and kicked him. Like he was nothing.”
“So wait,” I asked. “They shot him on the ground a fifth time?”
“Yeah, on the ground. Right in the chest,” she explained, pointing to her own body.
She and Donald’s other neighbors and friends in the area surrounding that intersection have a slightly different version of Sunday’s events. Truth obviously changes hands very poorly, and even more so with two-day-old memories, but everyone who witnessed the shooting agreed that there was no stick.
“Stick, ha! There weren’t no stick!” yelled a witness who chose to be anonymous.
Vince Smith, 54, whose living space is in a culvert about 100 yards from the incident, said, “I woke up to gunfire and went up as close as I could.” He took a break from panhandling to show me the distance he was from Donald’s body—which amounts to 15 to 20 yards. His voice broke when he explained, “He wasn’t a problem to nobody. He talked to himself sometimes. But that’s it.” He added, “I didn’t see no stick. I was this close, and there was no stick.”
Thornhill agreed, “He never hurt anybody. He was really sweet. He just sat by that bus stop over there all day and slept under that bridge.” When asked to entertain the possibility that he might have had a stick or had any reason to be aggressive, Thornhill responded, “He didn’t know those guys. He didn’t know those cops and they just harassed him last week for jaywalking.”
“So it was possible he might have been hostile?” I asked.
“No. Not him. Never,” she reiterated.
Donald, whose full name wasn’t known to his associates, had been living under the I-10 for at least a year. He had banded together with two other guys to protect their train of shopping carts. Only one of those carts was Donald’s and it was still there when I went by on Tuesday—his friends were not. Strewn about and peppered by two-day old blood, were old self-help DVD’s, assorted items of clothing, a bucket, and some newspapers—no sticks, clubs, or weapons of any kind.
The Sheriff’s Department has every reason to be tight-lipped about this incident. They’ve been ankle-deep in apparent fuckups over the past few years. This August, they lost a $4.1 million lawsuit for shooting an unarmed Lancaster couple (the woman was pregnant)—and those people had a home, albeit a shack on someone else’s property, but a building with four walls, nonetheless.
Last year, two white deputies from the same Transit Services Bureau stood trial for beating the shit out of a homeless black man, Johnnie Franklin Jones, in 2009. Their trial ended in a hung jury, despite the fact that those particular deputies had a history of excessive force and tried to blame their beating of Jones on his supposed crack use. (He was, in fact, clean of drugs and wholly employed.)
Whatever happens in this case, the department’s defenders will likely shroud them in the, “they’ve got a tough job to do” security blanket, which is not to say that the department doesn’t have a challenging job. It happens to be a job they actually signed up for. A chief part of that job is correctly applying the deadly force with which we license them—even if their day-to-day duties consist of verifying metro tickets.
Maybe Sheriff Lee Baca should take a break from doing nutritional-supplement endorsements and get a better handle on his department.