Update: On June 19, the Los Angeles Times reported French’s family has engaged attorney Dale K. Galipo. Galipo said Kenneth French pushed the officer in the food line, but it is unclear why. Based on video footage of the incident, Galipo said the officer identified himself as police, and French’s father stepped in between the two men. According to Galipo, French had recently started a new medication that may have played a role in pushing the officer. Galipo confirmed French was nonverbal and said he was normally calm. He characterized the shooting as “excessive and completely unjustified.”
On Friday, 32-year-old Kenneth French was shot and killed at a Costco store in Corona, California, by an off-duty police officer who felt threatened after an alleged “unprovoked assault,” according to the Press-Enterprise. After revealing French had intellectual disabilities and was non-verbal, his family questioned the police department’s account of the shooting.
According to a press statement from the Corona Police Department, an off-duty Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer was shopping with his family at Costco. The police alleged, “Without provocation, a male unknown to the officer’s family assaulted the officer while the officer was holding his young child.”
David Winslow, an attorney representing the unnamed officer, shared the officer’s account of what happened. Winslow told The Mighty in an email:
The officer was off duty and shopping in Costco with his wife and 1 year old son. He was holding his son in his arms while feeding him. Without warning or provocation he was violently attacked from behind. There were no words exchanged and no argument. He and his son were both knocked to the ground. The officer was unconscious momentarily.
While lying injured on the Costco floor, he was unprotected and had no other option to defend himself and his son from further deadly attack. He was in fear for his son’s life. The only option was deadly force. The entire situation is a terrible tragedy for all concerned.
Media reports indicate at least six shots were fired. French was killed and French’s parents, Russell and Paola French, were also shot and injured. On Sunday, Los Angeles Times reported Paola is in a coma and Russell has improved, though it’s unclear if he is still in critical condition. The officer involved sustained minor injuries and has since been released from the hospital. His child was not hurt. The off-duty officer has not been officially named by the police department, though Winslow told other media outlets the officer was a seven-year veteran in the Southeast Division.
French’s family questions the police department and Winslow’s account of events. On Sunday, French’s cousin, Rick Shureih, told the Press-Enterprise French had an intellectual disability with the abilities of a teenager, and was “non-violent, non-aggressive, non-verbal.” In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Shureih added French had no history of violence.
“He was a gentle giant,” Shureih said. “He’s never been violent in the past. He’s always been very cooperative and kept to himself.”
In a now-deleted Facebook post, Shureih called out the police for making French look like the alleged suspect in the shooting. He pointed out French was unarmed, and Shureih called for witnesses to come forward to find out what really happened.
“I’m posting this picture because the stories on social media have made them out to be the suspects, and the off duty cop the victim,” Shureih wrote Sunday, according to PBS. “This is a family that was unarmed and was just grocery shopping. Truth will come out! I’m sure this was a misunderstanding that got escalated for no reason!”
According to PBS, some witnesses to the shooting remember hearing an argument between two people near the freezer section of the store before hearing gunshots. Shureih said because French was non-verbal, it’s unlikely his cousin would have been involved in an argument. The Associated Press pointed out while Corona police indicated during a press conference a witness reported an argument prior to the shooting, the department’s official police statement said the attack was “without provocation.”
The HuffPost reported some witnesses told a very different story about what happened. Witnesses told TV reporters they saw a woman holding a child at the time of the shooting, not a man, and as many as seven or eight shots were fired. Shureih said in a now-deleted Facebook post, per the Associated Press, other witnesses had come forward to contradict the police department’s version of events, though he declined to give details. Shureih indicated the family planned to hire an attorney.
A Ruderman Family Foundation report pointed out that police violence against people with disabilities is common. The foundation said 33 to 55% of all people killed by police officers have a disability. However, statistics show people with disabilities are much more likely to be the victim of a crime than to commit one. According to a U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study, between 2009 and 2015, people with disabilities were 2.5 times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than people without disabilities.
Many disability advocates have pointed out police officers don’t get enough training to appropriately — and non-violently — respond to the needs of people with disabilities. Mighty contributor Carissa Rupp made this point in her article, “Why We Need to Talk About Police Brutality and Disability.” She wrote:
The majority of our police officers are upstanding, caring, and courageous individuals. I am grateful to those who are willing to protect and serve. Unfortunately, though, it’s hard to ignore the data that shows that people with disabilities are being subjected to a disproportionate use of force by law enforcement officers. According to research, police violence against an individual with a disability is often a result of lack of understanding and awareness by well-intentioned officers.
It is unclear whether or not the officer knew French had a disability before firing his weapon or if the officer had any training specific to disability. Josh Rubenstein, public information director for the LAPD, told The Mighty via email all LAPD officers are required to complete “extensive Mental Health Intervention Training.” However, the needs of community members with intellectual disabilities are likely not covered under mental health training.
On Monday, PBS reported investigators were evaluating surveillance footage of the shooting from Costco. Costco declined to provide additional details when reached for comment by The Mighty. The Corona Police Department also asked for witnesses to come forward as part of its investigation into the incident. Corona police will be handling the criminal investigation into the shooting.
Rubenstein said the LAPD has also “initiated an administrative investigation,” but is unable to provide details. Winslow, the officer’s lawyer, said the officer had been questioned by police investigators and was placed on paid administrative leave per department protocol following an officer-involved shooting.
Article updated June 18 with comment from attorney David Winslow. The Mighty has reached out to the Shureih family and Corona Police Department for comment but has yet to hear back.