The SF Police Fiasco

In San Francisco, protesters against police killings parked themselves in front of the police station and staged a hunger strike that lasted 17 days and gained a lot of support. They demanded the resignation of the police chief and mayor. The nationwide attention was helpful in fighting ongoing police killings, but the effort was largely misguided.

Mario Woods was a man either mentally unbalanced or under the influence when he slashed a man he did not know. Confronted by police, he refused to drop his knife, and told the police to kill him. Police shot “beanbags” at him, to little effect, then shot him 20 times when he took a step toward the crowd that had gathered. Police could have subdued him with blankets, nets, tarps, shields, or a single shot to the leg.

Luis Gongora was a homeless man with a kitchen knife, a common defense item among those living in tents as he was. He had been walking in circles, talking to himself. Police shot beanbags within seconds of arrival, and killed him with bullets within 30 seconds. No one was within ten feet of him. Gongora spoke only Spanish, yet even in the Mission not one cop spoke Spanish to him. They shouted meaningless commands in English—“Get on the ground!—then immediately killed him. I’m not sure I would have known what was being shouted or how to comply. Witnesses said he did not lunge at officers, as claimed. The police failed to follow protocol. No attempt was made to calm him or subdue him peacefully.

Alex Nieto lived all his life in Bernal Heights and the Mission. He was employed as a security guard, and was wearing his uniform, including his licensed taser, under a sports team jacket. He was eating some food in the park before work. He finished eating, and was walking out of the park. A 911 caller had reported someone “acting erratically”, which to me sounds like fear of the non-white. Police responded and immediately drew weapons. An officer at some distance shouted “stop” one time, and bullets were fired soon after. Alex fell and drew his taser, which has an identifying red laser light on it. Seconds later police fired a total of 48 shots, at least ten hitting him.

People protesting the deaths of these three men at the hands of the San Francisco Police are certainly justified in their anger at these wrongful deaths, and particularly the lack of accountability that followed, but they are making the wrong complaint about the wrong people.

The demand of protesters is that police chief Suhr and mayor Lee resign, which would accomplish nothing. The problems are with the police themselves, and both Suhr and Lee have made serious efforts to improve police policy and practice. A new policy statement was released in February. A new chief and mayor could do no better.

Protestors cite racist texts and emails between police officers, but they make no mention of the fact that the officers involved were out of a job the following morning, fired by Chief Suhr. They also failed to note that the police department already had policy in place for addressing threatening persons, but the police failed to follow policy in all three cases mentioned above.

There is no question in my mind that these killings were unjustified. I even wrote a blog essay suggesting various ways to manage such difficult situations, and most of us have seen how European and Canadian police have handled similar difficulties. Mostly they involve overwhelming the threatening person with non-lethal means that prevent him from harming anyone, or even moving. In one case, officers closed in on the threatening man with large plastic shields until he was completely surrounded at close quarters. I see no reason persons like these cannot be controlled with a net or nets either thrown over him or wrapped around him, or even blankets. There is rarely a need for guns, let alone a fusillade of dozens of bullets.

New police policies were announced in February, but putting them into full practice in a large department takes time. One change involves quadrupling firearms training time and changing the focus to “force options” training, which is exactly what is needed. The most important element may be training to sensitize officers to realities like limited English, different cultural practices, and better ways to deal with the mentally ill. There are several other parts of the plan, which are all being implemented. The Obama administration has also been working to develop policies and practices to stop the ongoing national tragedy of police murders.

Improvements in SF should follow because, among other things, police “chaperones” will be required for cases like the three above. That is, lower level officers will not act without a direct order. Additional accountability will also be part of the changes. SF police, like in many other cities, will be wearing body cameras before the year is out. In other cities, cameras on cars and officers have by themselves led to improvements, because officers cannot claim someone did something when video evidence says otherwise.

Suhr and Lee are putting these changes in place. Neither is the evil demon that demonstrators have claimed without evidence. Both are long-time proponents of exactly the things the protesters advocate.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. There’s just no end in sight from these police murders, they are nothing less,I do not believe that these so called guardians of the peace , there to serve and protect are in the least bit in fear for their own safety, I believe they just like the chance to kill and get away with it, in the course of doing ” their duty” !

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