Police fatally shot a homeless man during a "brutal" videotaped struggle in which a rookie officer cried out that the man had hold of his gun before three other officers opened fire, the Los Angeles police chief said Monday.

Chief Charlie Beck's account of the incident, including photos showing the condition of the gun, was rare 24 hours after a shooting involving an officer. It comes amid heightened attention to killings by police that have led to protests, some violent, across the United States.

Beck said video showed the man reaching toward the officer's waistband. The officer's gun was found partly cocked and jammed with a bullet in the chamber and another in the ejection port, indicating a struggle for the weapon.

"You can hear the young officer who was primarily engaged in the confrontation saying that 'He has my gun. He has my gun,"' Beck said. "He says it several times, with conviction."

Earlier Monday, activists called on California Gov. Jerry Brown to appoint a special investigator to examine the killing in Los Angeles's Skid Row neighbourhood.

Los Angeles memorial

A memorial was set up for the homeless man shot and killed during an altercation with police. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

The shooting is being investigated by the police department's inspector general and the Los Angeles district attorney. Among the evidence are two videos shot by bystanders and two shot with cameras worn by a sergeant and another officer who fired their weapons.

"The video is disturbing," police spokesman Andrew Smith said Sunday. "It's disturbing any time anyone loses their life. It's a tragedy."

After the shooting, police are seen drawing their batons and warning an angry crowd to step back. Several people shouted at the officers, accusing them of going too far.

Sunday's violence had echoes of the August police shooting of 25-year-old Ezell Ford, whose death in a struggle with LA officers brought demonstrations in the city. Ford was unarmed. Police said he was shot after reaching for an officer's gun.

Witnesses said the man killed Sunday was known as "Africa," though they withheld his name. Smith said he had previous interactions with officers.

The shadowy video does not clearly show the man's race, but witnesses said he was black, as was the officer whose gun was partly cocked.


Tents line the sidewalk on downtown Los Angeles's Skid Row in a file photo. Sunday's fatal shooting occurred in the area, around the intersection of 5th and San Pedro. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Police were investigating a reported robbery when they tried to talk with the suspect and he refused to obey their commands and started fighting, Beck said.

Witnesses said the man had been on Skid Row for months, living amid the tents, sleeping bags and trash that are common in the area.

On the video — which drew millions of views — six officers are at the scene. They begin wrestling with the man as he takes swings at them.

Two of the officers break away to subdue and handcuff a woman who had picked up one of their dropped batons.

The struggle becomes increasingly blurry and distant, but shouting can be heard, followed by five apparent gunshots.

Dennis Horne, 29, told the Los Angeles Times that the man had been fighting with someone else in his tent before officers arrived.

"It's sad," Horne said. "There's no justification to take somebody's life."

Tents and cardboard shelters cover the sidewalks of Skid Row, the downtown neighbourhood where an estimated 1,700 homeless people live. Many of them struggle with mental illness and addiction.