By Ken Stone, Times of San Diego, a member of the San Diego Online News Association
Photo: Arrow points to La Mesa police Detective Eric Knudson before he withdrew behind a wall and shot Leslie Furcron with a beanbag shell. LMPD photo
March 19, 2021 (La Mesa) - Eric Knudson, the La Mesa police officer cleared by county and local authorities in his beanbag shooting of Leslie Furcron last May at a George Floyd protest, returned to work last week, but remains under a cloud.
He faces a lawsuit from Furcron, 59, who suffered partial blindness at the La Mesa police station protest. And a newly released internal report faults Knudson, 42, for lacking proper training in less-lethal firearms and using an unfamiliar weapon.
“Detective Eric Knudson returned to his regular assignment as a detective on March 9, 2021,” Lt. Matt Nicholass said Thursday.
On Wednesday, the city released a 323-page report on the Furcron shooting — including previously confidential materials, two interviews with Knudson and a 14-page report by use-of-force expert R.K. Miller, a retired Huntington Beach police lieutenant.
Among the revelations: Knudson told investigators that his “heart dropped” and he was “in a state of shock a little bit afterwards” when he heard someone may have been hit in the face. “His objective had been to ‘stop the threat’ and he was aiming for the ‘lower torso area.'”
Miller, president of National Training Concepts, concluded that Knudson’s use of force was legally justified under California law and “reasonable” amid current law enforcement standards.
He saluted Knudson and others for “professionalism” as they faced a hail of rocks and other objects being thrown at them and the extreme stress involved as they protected a dispatch center in the police station.
Photo, right: La Mesa Police Department slide showing Eric Knudson’s credentials, including being a “racial profiling instructor.”
“The restraint by all officers reveals their level of self-control and proper decision making during this very challenging event,” Miller wrote.
But Knudson received “at best” only limited training regarding deploying less lethal munitions at long distances, he said. And his “less lethal shotgun” wasn’t an LMPD firearm.
“Instead, it was a San Diego Sheriff’s Office weapon,” Miller wrote. “While the two shotguns are similar, there are differences in the way they are marked as less lethal weapons. More importantly, the sight radius (distance between front and rear sights) and the type of sights on the two shotguns are different.”
Knudson also failed to inspect the weapon he was handed, and may have used the wrong kind of round, Miller said.
In an interview, Knudson showed Miller how he wore his gas mask and helmet.
“Having seen his demonstration, I question whether or not he could establish and maintain a stable sight picture while wearing this equipment,” Miller wrote. “It is my opinion that at times, Det. Knudson may only have been able to focus on the shotgun’s front sight without viewing through the rear sight.”
Photo, left: Eric Knudson, who returned to work last week, has been with the La Mesa Police Department 12 years. LMPD image
The result might have been a trajectory that led the bean bag round hitting higher than its intended target — Furcron’s midsection.
“This is especially relevant,” Miller said. “Knudson told me that the first time he used the mask and helmet in combination with a less lethal shotgun was on the night in question.”
Miller also revealed that the 12-gauge shotgun Knudson used that Saturday night has been lost.
“The SOSO shotgun’s chain of custody both before and after its use is a serious matter,” Miller wrote. “We know that Det. Knudson was given the shotgun by [La Mesa police Detective Michael] Butcher,” who in turn got the shotgun from a sheriff’s deputy.
What happened to the shotgun after Knudson turned it over to Officer James Sampugnaro is unresolved, he said.
“In essence, this incident became an Officer Involved Shooting event when cries that [Furcron] had been ‘killed’ and ‘You shot her in the face’ were heard,” he said. “The SOSO shotgun should have been isolated as evidence.”
Asked about the missing weapon, a sheriff’s spokeswoman told Times of San Diego: “We don’t have information on this investigation. Please refer to the lead investigating agency.”
Nicholass of LMPD said: “The investigation never determined what exact beanbag shotgun was used during the incident.”
The LMPD report also shared more information on Knudson’s background, including the fact he had been an instructor in “principled policing, racial profiling.”
Asked for details on what Knudson knew about the issue, Nicholass said: “Detective Knudson taught racial profiling to other LMPD personnel.”
That might include Matt Dages, the fired La Mesa police officer whose arrest of 23-year-old Amaurie Johnson three days before the La Mesa incident made the city police station Ground Zero for San Diego protests.
On June 17, 2020, Knudson was interviewed by La Mesa police Detective Ryan Gremillion, Lt. Greg Runge and others including defense attorney Edward Southcott. On Sept. 17, Knudson was quizzed by Runge and consultant Miller.
“There was a lot more of protestors than there were of, uh, officers and, and deputy,” Knudson is quoted as telling them. “Um, I remember thinking about how vulnerable, uh, it felt with the recent, I think it was either the night before that there was a shooting at one of the protests were two, uh, officers were hit and one, um, died.”
He said incoming objects — including a water bottle that “exploded” when it hit his knee but caused no injury — was “pretty continuous.”
“Uh, it seemed like every time after, uh, gas was deployed to push the crowd back that we would get the larger amount of those, uh, objects being thrown at us, rocks being thrown at our direction,” he said.
At first, Knudson used a launcher to shoot pepper balls.
“I had it for a very brief amount of time, but in that amount of time I saw, uh, black male wearing, uh, a shirt with, like, a Nike emblem on the shoulders or sleeves and, uh, he had two rocks in his hands. I yelled at him to drop the rocks, ’cause he was about maybe 20 to 25 feet in front on the other side of the retaining wall — so I yelled out to drop it. He didn’t drop it, so I deployed probably about four rounds of pepper ball in his direction, none of which hit him.”
Knudson also said he used his “less-lethal” beanbag shotgun before he hit Furcron.
Photo, right: Leslie Furcron, a 59-year-old grandmother who was wounded during protest, is suing Eric Knudson and the city. Photo by Chris Stone
“I saw a white male subject going down and grabbing, uh, one of the gas canisters that had been thrown by the deputies and, uh, and we had seen those being picked up and thrown back towards the direction of the deputies many times so I, at one point, deployed, uh, one beanbag round towards the direction of where that subject was at. It did not hit him and he ran off,” the interview transcript said.
In a summary of the La Mesa police findings, Lt. Runge said Knudson’s normal assignment is with the Investigations Division — assigned to probe adult sex crimes and financial crimes.
“Detectives, although assigned to a plainclothes investigative assignment, receive all of the same Continuing Professional Training and are required to successfully pass all of the same qualifications (Firearms, Defensive Tactics, Emergency Vehicle Operations, CPR/ First Aid) as any other sworn police officer at the La Mesa Police Department,” Runge said.
On Dec. 8, attorney Dante Pride sued Knudson and the City of La Mesa on Furcron’s behalf, and reported that she “still suffers, among other things, neurological symptoms, permanent facial scarring, and loss of vision in that eye. Doctors have told her that she may never regain her sight.”
The suit alleges civil rights violations, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress — and demands unspecified general, special and punitive damages.
On Jan. 28, the city and Knudson answered the complaint.
Among its responses, wrote defense attorney Heather E. Paradis:
- Defendants allege that if any damages were sustained by Plaintiff, the damages were proximately caused by the acts and/or omission of others over whom these answering Defendants exercises no control and for whose acts these answering Defendants are not responsible.
- Any loss or damages sustained by Plaintiff were in whole or in part due to the acts or omission by Plaintiff, and Plaintiff’s award, if any, should be reduced by her proportional share of negligence, fault, recklessness, or unlawful conduct.
- Defendants alleges that the acts complained of by Plaintiff were provoked by Plaintiff’s unlawful and wrongful conduct, and the force and/or physical contact, if any, used was not excessive or unreasonable under the circumstances.
- Defendants were acting on a good faith and reasonable belief that the acts complained of occurred within the scope of the defendant officer’s official duties and they had no knowledge that the alleged wrongful acts, if any, were illegal and/or unconstitutional nor were said alleged wrongful acts, if any, clearly a violation of Plaintiff’s rights at the time they were committed.
Senate Bill 1421, the state law mandating release of certain police investigations, took effect in 2019.
Christine McMillen, LMPD police services manager, said the department has been working since fall 2018 to identify what cases it had and preparing them for public release.
“They were released to the requestors using CDs or media flash drives,” she said Thursday. “I received a few more requests for these materials for the 2019 and 2020 calendar years, and we made a departmental decision to post all of the SB 1421 records on our website in the interest of transparency, greater ease of getting the records to the requestor, and to ease the burden of continually compiling the records on staff.”