In the weeks after a Los Angeles police officer fatally shot a man in Koreatown, LAPD officials said little about the killing.
The department broke its silence on Friday, when it made public video footage of the deadly encounter from cameras worn by officers.
Instead of clarifying what happened, however, the video has injected more uncertainty into the incident by failing to resolve a critical question: Did Marvin Cua cause the shooting by pointing a gun he was carrying at the officers, as the LAPD alleges?
The video uploaded to the LAPD’s YouTube page includes an account of how the shooting unfolded from Capt. Kelly Muniz, a spokeswoman, followed by excerpts of a 911 call and footage of the shooting.
In her account of the shooting, Muniz said officers were responding to a call of a man with a gun and summarized what occurred, saying, “The officers pursued the suspect a short distance on foot; as officers gave chase, the suspect removed a handgun from his waistband, pointed it in the direction of the officers and an officer-involved shooting occurred.”
But the footage that follows does not show Cua doing that.
The video from a camera worn by an officer riding in the passenger seat of a patrol car starts as the vehicle pulls up alongside Cua, who was walking on a sidewalk with another man. The officer, whom the LAPD identified as Christopher Jongsomjit, yells at the men to stop. Cua, who was 23, turns and runs down the sidewalk in the opposite direction.
Jongsomjit gives chase. A parked car briefly obstructs his view of Cua, who reappears and takes a few more strides before Jongsomjit fires a single shot about four seconds after Cua began running.
After his initial command to stop, Jongsomjit says nothing to Cua or his partner before firing. He first mentions Cua’s weapon after Cua has been shot and is motionless on the ground.
The video plays first at regular speed and it is difficult to see Cua as he runs. The LAPD then edited the video to replay it in slow motion. Twice the video freezes and zooms in on Cua to show the gun in his hand. At the slower speed and in the still frames, Cua is not seen pointing the gun at the officer and appears to be facing away from the officer as he runs.
Muniz, citing the department’s ongoing investigation into the shooting, declined to discuss the apparent discrepancy between her statement alleging Cua pointed his gun at the officers and the video. She cautioned that videos of shootings released by the department “are not a complete investigation.”
“These videos are produced to provide a description of the incident based on the information we have at the time,” she said in an email.
And in her statement on the video, Muniz said that because of where they are mounted on officers’ chests, “the angle of the camera prohibits viewers from seeing everything the officer saw and experienced.”
For years, video of shootings or other serious incidents captured by LAPD officers’ body-worn cameras were typically kept secret as department officials resisted calls for their release. Then, in 2018, the civilian commission that oversees the department ordered the videos to be made public within 45 days, saying the change was needed to increase transparency. The new rule has allowed the public to see firsthand how officers act during violent, dangerous episodes, but as the Cua shooting shows, the videos have limitations.
Cua died at the scene. A .22-caliber handgun was recovered next to his body, according to video. Police have said he was stopped because he matched the physical description of a suspect reported by a 911 caller.
Around 9 a.m. on June 2, the caller told dispatchers a man on South Berendo street near 8th Street dressed in a white tank top and black and white shorts had pointed a gun at some children.
Jongsomjit and his partner responded and spotted Cua, who was wearing a white T-shirt and black and white shorts, walking in the area with another man.
“Yo, yo stop right there both of you,” Jongsomjit shouted as he exited the patrol car, the video shows. “Stop! Stop! Hey! Hey!”
Jongsomjit drew his handgun and trained it on Cua as he gave chase. Without warning, he fired a single shot.
Cua continued running into the parking lot of a nearby strip mall, where he collapsed between a parked car and truck.
Jongsomjit is heard on the video instructing another officer to put out a help call on the radio and warning the officer Cua “has the gun on him.” Jongsomjit repeatedly yells, “Let me see your hands!” at Cua, who was lying motionless on the pavement.
Other officers arrived and a group of them approached Cua, handcuffing him. One of them checked for a pulse. Finding none, Cua was uncuffed and an officer began doing CPR.
Coroner officials declined to release information about Cua, saying an autopsy report will not be publicly available for several months. That report is likely to shed some light on how Cua was positioned in relation to Jongsomjit when he was shot by determining where on his body Cua was hit and the trajectory of the bullet.
Margaret Hellerstein, an immigration attorney, said that she first got to know Cua more than three years ago when he was being held at Adelanto Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing center and she represented him as he sought asylum. The two later became friends, she said.
Hellerstein said Cua was from Guatemala and his full name was Marvin Cua Sapon. Medical records, she said, showed he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and battled bouts of depression, which she suspects contributed to several run-ins he had with police.
Since his release from immigration custody last winter, Hellerstein said, Cua had taken odd jobs to pay the bills, and was splitting his time between staying with his mother, a friend in Koreatown and, occasionally, on the streets. He found comfort in drawing, for which he’d shown a true talent, according to Hellerstein.
“He was an incredibly gifted artist, he was soft-spoken, he was generous, he was funny. I know he wasn’t a saint, but he had a huge heart. I genuinely loved him,” said Hellerstein, who started a GoFundMe page to help his family cover funeral expenses and, if money is left over, to pay an attorney as the family pursues a possible lawsuit over his death.
The Office of the Inspector General will oversee the LAPD’s investigation into the shooting. An internal department panel will review the findings and advise Chief Michel Moore on whether Jongsomjit’s decision to use deadly force was appropriate. Moore, in turn, will make a recommendation to the civilian police commission, which will vote on whether the shooting was in line with the department’s policies.
Under the LAPD’s policy, an officer is permitted to use deadly force on a fleeing suspect if the suspect is believed to have committed a “felony that threatened or resulted in death or serious bodily injury” and the officer believes, based on the “totality of the circumstances,” that the suspect “will cause death or serious bodily injury to another unless immediately apprehended.”
Court cases over police shootings generally are guided by a 1989 Supreme Court ruling that established an “objectively reasonable” standard to determine whether an officer’s use of force was justified.
Under that standard, an officer is judged by whether a reasonable officer in the same situation would have acted the same, in light of several factors including the severity of the alleged crime, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat and whether the suspect was attempting to flee.
A handful of states, including California, have sought to establish their own, stricter standards. In 2019, California lawmakers changed the legal standard for when officers can use deadly force from being “reasonable” to “necessary.”
After watching video of the Cua shooting, William Terrell, a criminal justice professor at Arizona State University, questioned why the department would suggest that Cua pointed his gun at officers if the act wasn’t captured on camera. He also questioned whether the officers might have chosen a different approach that didn’t seemingly escalate the situation.
“I don’t know if that’s their training tactic to drive up slowly with their door open to someone who’s reported to be armed,” said Terrell, associate dean at the school’s Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions. “I did find that somewhat strange.”
The incident is one of eight fatal LAPD shootings so far this year, with three of them happening last week.
After reaching a 30-year low in 2019, the number of police shootings increased last year. LAPD officers opened fire 37 times in 2021, killing 18 people, which was an increase from the 27 shootings by officers in 2020, seven of which were fatal.
In light of last year’s increase, Chief Moore previously said the department would review how its officers are trained on the use of lethal force. Moore told the Police Commission at the time that the LAPD would conduct a “deep dive” into its training program to assess whether it properly outlines existing department policies, which have gotten stricter in recent years, and makes clear to officers “the reverence for human life” that is required of them.