The man charged at the four American soldiers with a bayonet in hand. The pig-sticker made him a threat, but the wispy goatee hanging delicately from a pointed chin hardly made him look menacing. The confrontation seemed like a sketch from the theater of the absurd.
He screamed incoherently, making slashing motions with the bayonet in one hand and gesturing at the sky with the other. He was oblivious to the four rifles pointed at him, a finger on the trigger of each. The man's wife and children were wailing and yelling at him to stop and at the GIs not to kill him. Combat instincts took over and the soldiers spread out, putting about four feet of space between them as the enraged farmer stopped a little more than arm's length away from the nearest American.
Despite the threat, the soldiers maintained fire discipline. Someone said, “Do we waste him?” The reply from the sergeant leading our team was unequivocal: “No. If the four of us can't take him down without killing him, we ain't worth a shit.”
We were in a free-fire zone in Ap Trung Thanh, north of Hue, and the rules of engagement permitted us to shoot with minimal restrictions. But it seemed unsporting to shoot the guy when we clearly had the upper hand in firepower and numbers.
In nearly 40 years of newspapering, my memory of that day in 1967 in Vietnam sometimes was triggered by police shootings I covered or read about. The recent killing of Charley Leundeu Keunang on Skid Row by Los Angeles police set off that flashback. Keunang, who was unarmed and on the ground, was shot multiple times by three of four officers, who couldn't subdue him.
Police Chief Charlie Beck said that Keunang grabbed an officer's pistol, but LAPD has not made it clear whether he ever had the weapon in his possession. LAPD spokesman Commander Andrew Smith did not respond to emails seeking clarification.
The incident reminded me of two other controversial officer-involved shootings where cops used deadly force against a suspect even though they had numerical superiority.
In 1991, William Slusar, who police said threatened them with a stick, was shot three times and killed by San Diego officer Charles M. Rice Jr., one of four cops at the scene. At the time, Rice had been a cop fewer than five years and had been involved in a previous on-duty shooting. He had been found to have used unnecessary force three other times. District Attorney Edwin Miller ruled the shooting justifiable but said his decision was not “an endorsement of the actions of the officer involved.” Miller's report said, “It seems exceedingly unfortunate that four officers were unable to disarm a man wielding a stick.”
In 2006 Huntington Beach police officers Read Parker and Shawn Randell shot 18-year-old Ashley MacDonald 15 times. A third officer present did not fire his weapon. Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said the 120-pound woman threatened the cops with a knife with a four-inch blade. She was shot after getting within eight to 10 feet of the officers.
Rackauckas said it was a “clear-cut case” that Parker and Randell had acted legally because “they were really left with no other choice,” according to the L.A. Times, where I was a reporter at the time.
In the Skid Row shooting, Beck promised a thorough investigation of his officers by his investigators and full disclosure of his department's findings. He and others asked the public not to rush in judging the officers.
But there are signs that Beck has already made a judgment about the officers' conduct and, at the same time, offered a possible clue about the investigation's outcome. The Times reported three days after the incident that the officers were allowed to return to work at administrative duties after Beck was “briefed on the deadly encounter.”
The public is asked not to judge the officers, but at the same time law enforcement has rushed to judge Keunang and mitigate the police shooting. Media reports revealed that Keunang had been using the stolen identity of a French citizen for more than 15 years. In selective leaks to the L.A. Times, Keunang's past as a violent armed robber was revealed; an enhanced video of the shooting reviewed by the Times “showed [Keunang's] arm reach toward an officer's waistband” but the paper didn't say if he took possession of the officer's handgun; and the paper reported that the three cops who fatally shot Keunang had never before fired their weapons on duty.
What the paper and LAPD officials didn't reveal was whether there have been citizen complaints against the officers or if they have ever been disciplined for using excessive force. The department waited more than two weeks to identify the officers who fired the fatal shots, Sgt. Chand Syed and Officers Francisco Martinez and Daniel Torres.
In contrast, five days after the Skid Row shooting, a Madison, Wisconsin, officer fatally shot a 19-year-old African-American man, and that officer's name was released within hours — along with information that he had been involved in a previous fatal shooting that resulted from suicide by cop. On Feb. 28, a Santa Ana officer shot a robbery suspect; the officer's name was released three days later.
I never covered cops in Los Angeles, but I did in San Francisco, San Diego and Orange County. In my reporting career, I know of only one officer prosecuted for a fatal shooting while on duty. He worked in Escondido and killed a woman taken hostage by a bank robber in 1983. The officer was acquitted.
I suspect that the three officers who killed Keunang will be cleared in what law enforcement will find was another “good shooting.” If the past is prologue, the police will claim that they were scared, scared for their lives, scared for the other officers' lives and scared for the lives of Skid Row residents. Investigators and the district attorney will find their fright justifiable, even if the dead guy was unarmed and on the ground when fatally shot.
The final report will have a history of Keunang's criminal past, previous contacts with police and a toxicology report; it will note that he refused to comply with officers' commands and that a Taser was ineffective in subduing him. There will be precious little information about the officers except for their names and perhaps their length of service and training.
However, none of this will alter the facts. Police shot an unarmed man multiple times and killed him while he was on the ground.
Nearly 48 years ago in Ap Trung Thanh, our U.S. Army advisory team faced a threat from an armed man who our South Vietnamese troops said was “dinky dau” (a crazy person), or “5150” in cop jargon. He had emerged from a bunker where his family had taken refuge. We had taken automatic weapons fire from a bamboo grove alongside the village and called in artillery. As was often the case, the enemy melted away, leaving villagers to pick up the pieces and suffer the consequences.
The four of us took down the overwrought farmer without killing him. It wasn't a gentle takedown, but he lived to tell about it and so did we.
Back home, America was becoming embittered by that divisive war and viewed her warriors with indifference or contempt.
But on that afternoon in Ap Trung Thanh we were worth a shit, regardless of what anyone thought.