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What We Know About the Mentally Ill Homeless Man Killed by the LAPD

Known alternately as "Africa" and "Cameroon," the victim of Sunday's LAPD shooting did drugs, but also maintained a deep spirituality and struggled with mental problems.

by Matt Tinoco
04 March 2015, 6:00am

LAPD Officers at the scene of Sunday's shooting. Photos by the author

There was exactly one topic of conversation on downtown LA's Skid Row Monday morning: the shooting death of an approximately 28-year-old African immigrant now known alternately as "Africa" and "Cameroon."

LAPD cops shot the man five times Sunday while responding to a robbery call just outside a homeless shelter in the middle of the district known for having the highest concentration of homeless people in the United States.

While the facts are still somewhat foggy, it seems most likely at this point that during the altercation between Cameroon and the officers, he grabbed at one of the officer's guns, prompting the officers to shoot him lest he open fire on them or bystanders.

Most critical, however, is the question of how Cameroon's alleged mental illness played into the entire incident.

"I watched the whole thing from right there," said Ceola Waddell, a 58-year-old black man from Memphis, gesturing to the spot where he lives, about 20 feet away from where the victim was killed across an alleyway.

Waddell told VICE he saw the police ruffle Cameroon's tent, shoot a Taser inside, drag him outside, and stun him again.

"There were five police officers, and they couldn't keep him down. He was having an episode of some sort and they kept attacking him. It didn't look like he was attacking them out of malice or anything. It looked like he was terrified out of his mind for his life," he said.

Waddell is known locally as "the Cook." Using ingredients both donated and purchased, he often prepares large meals for his neighbours on Skid Row. Though he didn't know Cameroon particularly well, he regarded him as a mostly quiet fellow who, despite his drug habits and apparent mental illness, largely kept to himself.

Another man who identified himself only as "Hutch" echoed that claim.

"Sure, he smoked crystal. Everyone here smokes crystal. It's no secret. It lets us escape our miserable existence. But he never really bothered anyone and the drugs helped him cope," Hutch said.

In the past, Hutch and Cameroon smoked a couple of joints together. Nothing too formal, but they were friends. Hutch added that when they did talk, Cameroon mentioned that he had spent some time in a mental institution of some sort, leading him to believe that Cameroon's death occurred because the police simply didn't know how to properly react to someone with mental illness

"I didn't see the shooting happen, but I know that there must have been something to instigate him," he said. "Like a lot of folks here, he was mentally ill. And a lot of the time the cops don't know how to deal with people who are mentally ill."

According to multiple sources, the victim was about 28 years old. He was an immigrant from Cameroon who spoke English with a heavy accent, spoke French fluently, and was a profoundly religious man. In the words of a man named "Juju" who said he was his closest friend on Skid Row, Cameroon was simply grateful to be in the United States.

"He didn't take anything for granted, that a lot of people in this country do. He came from a place where he had no rights. And here, he did. He had the right to speech, and the freedom to live how he wanted to," Juju told VICE.

Juju is from Cameroon as well, and the two were "like brothers" on Skid Row, almost always together and frequently speaking in French.

"He was a deeply spiritual man. He set his tent up right there so he could look up at that cross," said Juju, gesturing to a cross formed into the adjacent building's architecture.

Juju didn't mention anything about mental illness, but another man who also watched the shooting happen from inside a public toilet he sheltered in said he had seen Cameroon act out in the past.

"Usually he kept quiet, but I definitely remember him sometimes acting up, yelling and hitting things with a small baseball bat he kept his in his tent for security," that man, who declined to give his name, explained.

Cameroon's tent and possessions were still sitting out on the sidewalk this morning when I went to have a look at the scene. When asked what Cameroon's legal name might have been, Juju ruffled through some belongings, looking for the man's wallet. He couldn't find it, and guessed that the police or Coroner's department must have taken it during their investigation.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck held a press conference around noon local time on Monday, speaking mostly in broad generalities about what he called "an extreme tragedy." While he emphasised that the officers involved were trained to deal with homeless and mentally ill patients, he didn't explicitly say whether the officers acted within the confines of department policy.

"We feel great compassion in the LAPD for people who live in conditions of homelessness, and often mental illness with no treatment," Beck said. "We prepare our officers to deal as best they can with them, but the reality is, this is much more than a problem that the police alone can solve."

The chief added that the victim reached for an officer's gun, citing the weapon being partially engaged as evidence. Whatever the case, the shooting is already being touted as a test for the LAPD's relatively new body camera program.

Though Cameroon's official identity isn't yet known, and likely won't be until the Coroner's department positively identifies his body, his friends on Skid Row already miss him.

"If only they had stepped back and given him a minute to see what was going on, calm down, and stop panicking, then he might have been here today," said Juju. "He didn't wake up yesterday thinking he was going to die."

Matt Tinoco is a young reporter in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.