Homeless, Mentally Ill & Black: Deck Stacked Against L.A. Man Shot by Police

By Michael Nam

While the investigation continues into the high-profile shooting of an unarmed homeless man in Los Angeles that was caught on video, there are key issues surrounding the confrontation that go beyond the narrative of another police-related death. The deadly meeting between the man, known as “Africa,” and the LAPD occurred in a Skid Row section of the city where approximately 3,500 homeless individuals, many with issues regarding mental health, reside. Africa and the police collided at an intersection of social ills facing the city, the state of California and the U.S.: homelessness, treatment of the mentally ill and race.

Los Angeles currently has the second-largest homeless population for a U.S. city (behind New York). The city has sought to abandon its Broken Windows approach. “Our success will lie in taking a more progressive approach,” Los Angeles Police Department Captain John McMahon said to the Los Angeles Times in the summer of 2014.

While the city recognized the need for a different approach to policing Skid Row in light of the depth of the issues involving mental illness in the population, critics pointed to an incident that same summer when a homeless man died falling off a roof after being hit with a Taser by police officers. Studies show the mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators, but despite efforts to reduce conflicts and to reach out to the population, Africa—who reportedly spent a decade in treatment just prior to this incident—was still killed during an attempt to enforce a local ordinance regarding tents on the street.

With racial profiling by police officers already a much-discussed topic, it is also important to note that about 38 percent of the homeless population in L.A. is Black, more than four times the Black representation in the city as a whole. In painting a picture of the man known as Africa, the image is that of a man with multiple characteristics that would result in his experiencing violence at the hands of authorities.

(A law-enforcement official told The Associated Press that Africa was identified as Charley Saturmin Robinet, 39, but that is an assumed name he reportedly stole years ago. Workers at a Skid Row shelter say he had lived outside their building for six to eight months.)

Despite video footage of this particular incident, there are still many questions regarding the treatment of homeless, mentally ill individuals of color, particularly in urban centers like Los Angeles. The police officer who shot an unarmed homeless man ultimately may be cleared of any legal responsibility, but why so many people like Africa end up in similar situations is a troubling issue for the city, and the nation, to grapple with.

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