National News

S.F. police shootings: No charges for officers in Mario Woods, Luis Gongora Pat killings

Posted May 24, 2018 7:15 p.m. EDT

SAN FRANCISCO -- San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon declined to file criminal charges Thursday against police officers in two controversial killings, including the 2015 shooting of Mario Woods in the Bayview neighborhood, which prompted widespread protests and sweeping reform efforts in the city force.

Gascon said he will not file charges against five officers who fired at Woods and two officers who shot and killed Luis Gongora Pat in the Mission District in 2016, because both men had knives and there was insufficient evidence to prove the officers acted unreasonably in defending themselves and others.

However, the district attorney expressed frustration over the incidents that put a spotlight on how police use force in San Francisco, saying he did not believe officers should have killed the men but was bound by the law not to press charges in the high-profile cases. In the Woods case, prosecutors said, cell-phone videos showed Woods was not directly threatening officers with the knife when they fired 26 rounds at him.

``To the Woods family and the Gongora family, there are not enough words that I can say that are going to bring their loved ones back,'' Gascon said. ``I'm very sorry they lost a son, they lost a brother, a friend, because I don't believe that was necessary.''

The killings, which happened four months apart, ratcheted up tension between the Police Department and many of the communities its officers are assigned to protect. Both Woods, 26, and Gongora Pat, 45, were men of color and the shootings followed nationwide upheaval after several notable police killings, including the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

Civil rights attorney John Burris, who represents Woods' family in a civil suit against the city and police department, said he didn't expect criminal charges to be filed but was still disappointed with the decision.

``I think the shooting was excessive and unjustified,'' Burris said. ``They shouldn't have been that quick to take a life. They had time to wait. No one was in serious danger.''

Gongora Pat's family members stood on the steps of the Hall of Justice after Gascon's announcement and expressed outrage over the decisions.

``This is a very sad day. It is lamentable. It is extremely difficult for us,'' said Luis Armando Poot Pat, a cousin, with the help of an interpreter. ``Mr. Gascon is a coward. He is a person who does not represent the citizens. He did not have the courage to do his job.''

Tony Montoya, president of the San Francisco Police Officer's Association, said Thursday's announcement was ``a long time coming'' and ``vindicated'' the officers who fired their weapons in each incident.

``It is a huge sense of relief for my members that were involved,'' Montoya said. ``These last 2 1/2 years have been an emotional roller coaster ride for them.''

All of the officers were placed on paid administrative leave for 90 days after the shooting under a policy by former chief Greg Suhr, and upon returning to duty they were placed in no-public-contact positions until the district attorney concluded the criminal investigations.

``They are all looking forward to getting back to the job they love,'' Montoya said.

The fatal shootings were among several in the city within a short period in San Francisco, leading to the resignation of Suhr and prompting the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the police force and its policies.

Woods, an African American man, was shot and killed on Dec. 2, 2015. According to a 28-page report released Thursday by the district attorney's office, officers were called around 4:20 p.m. to Keith Street near Third Street in the Bayview, to check out a report of a stabbing by an erratic, knife-wielding man later identified as Woods.

When police got to the scene, Woods was still in the area holding a 4 1/2-inch blade, prosecutors said. Two officers reported that Woods told them, ``I'm not going with you'' and ``You're gonna have to f--ing shoot me.''

Nearly a dozen officers soon arrived to form a semi-circle around Woods as he stood against a wall. The officers attempted to disarm him by firing bean bag rounds and other projectiles, but Woods refused to drop his weapon and began shuffling slowly to his right along the wall. He was cut off by Officer Charles August, who later told investigators he wanted to prevent Woods from going toward bystanders who were at a bus stop on the block.

As Woods got within about 10 feet of August, he and four other officers -- Winston Seto, Antonio Santos, Nicholas Cuevas and Scott Phillips -- opened fire, striking Woods 20 times. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Less than two minutes elapsed between initial contact and the shooting, according to the district attorney's report.

Two days after the incident, Suhr told an emotional town hall crowd that Woods pointed his blade at August before the officers opened fire. The district attorney's investigation contradicted that claim, but noted that a suspect with a knife can ``pose a lethal threat and (officers) do not have to wait for an individual to 'attack' them in order to use lethal force.''

The medical examiner's report also said that he was under the influence of methamphetamine.

Investigators with the district attorney's office consulted with the supervisors of the Police Department's Training Academy as well as an independent use-of-force expert, both of whom concluded the officers acted in accordance with their training.

The city Police Commission began revising the department's use-of-force policy after the shooting, putting more emphasis on de-escalation.

In February 2016, Suhr and Lee held a news conference announcing further changes to diffuse situations with knife-wielding suspects.

But then, on April 7, 2016, police shot and killed Gongora Pat, a Mexican immigrant, on Shotwell Street between 18th and 19th streets in the city's Mission District.

The incident began shortly after 10 a.m. when workers from the Department of Public Health's Homeless Outreach Team reported that a homeless man, later identified as Gongora Pat, was in the area waving a large kitchen knife.

Two police officers and a sergeant sped to the scene and ordered Gongora Pat to drop an eight-inch knife, according to the district attorney's 35-page report on the incident, which cited witness interviews, statements from the officers and video footage of the moments before the shooting.

Gongora Pat initially dropped the knife but picked it back up, the report said. The officers commanded him again to drop the weapon in English and Spanish before Officer Michael Mellone shot him with bean bag rounds, officials said.

That's when Gongora Pat jumped up, knife in hand, and charged at Sgt. Nathaniel Steger, according to the district attorney's report. Eight witnesses confirmed that account, but other witnesses gave contradictory statements that investigators said were not supported by the physical evidence.

Steger and Mellone opened fire and hit Gongora Pat six times, including a fatal shot to the head, the report said.

The medical examiner's report found he was under the influence of methamphetamine at a level ``high enough to kill or hospitalize a non-habitual user.''

Surveillance video showed that only 30 seconds elapsed between the time officers exited their patrol vehicles and when they fired.

What had already been a tumultuous few months in San Francisco following Woods' killing erupted in further protest after Gongora Pat was shot dead.

In the days and weeks after the shooting, a group of demonstrators known as the Frisco Five began a hunger strike and called on Suhr to be fired. Protesters in May 2016 converged on City Hall, clashing with sheriff's deputies as they flooded the rotunda. The building was damaged in a raucous protest that ended in 33 arrests.

Gascon invited Woods and Gongora Pat's family members to his office before Thursday's announcement to explain his decision, but both declined to take the meetings.

Mayor Mark Farrell issued a statement Thursday defending Gascon and the San Francisco Police Department, while acknowledging the pain that the district attorney's decision ``will cause in communities that have for so long been disproportionately impacted by violence.''

Gascon has supported state Assembly Bill 931, which would require police to only use lethal force when ``necessary'' to prevent imminent death or injury, and there is no reasonable alternative.

``I want the community to understand that I'm very disturbed by these uses of force as well as others, and I'm going to do everything that I can in order to move the law in a different direction,'' Gascon said.