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Investigations into police shooting cases lagging

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Police investigate the scene of a 2011 incident on Larkin Street in which a suspect was fatally shot.

It was a bright Wednesday afternoon in mid-December 2011 when a traffic stop turned into a gunbattle in the Tenderloin.

Three Northern district police officers stopped a car at Bush and Larkin streets for registration issues. Instead of the normal rigmarole, the driver bolted. Then, as he ran down Larkin Street, two officers following behind, he started firing a gun at his pursuers.

The chase ended soon afterward, according to a witness, when one of the officers fired a shot into the suspect's head, killing the man.

This incident is just one of the nearly 100 officer-involved shootings since 2000. While the investigations into most have been completed, 20 — dating back to 2011 — remain unresolved, according to a recent update from the Police Department's Internal Affairs Division. Five of those pending cases resulted in someone's death.

The backlog troubles several police commissioners and critics of the process.

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“Eighteen months is just too long,” Commissioner Suzy Loftus said in reference to the length of most investigations, when the report was presented to the Police Commission earlier this month. “I think we can do better.”

The more time that goes by, she said, the more time officers who did nothing wrong are in limbo. The passage of time also potentially compromises cases.

Commissioner Petra De Jesus also questioned whether there is anything to do to speed up the investigations.

Sgt. John Crudo, who presented the report for Internal Affairs, said that while they are trying to decrease the time that these investigations take, they are not out of the ordinary.

Their average time, from the date of the incident to completion of an investigation, is about 24 months, he said.

But one factor contributing to the backlog, Crudo said, is out of the hands of police investigators. The District Attorney's Office must also review the cases, and oftentimes their investigations take the longest.

While every officer-involved shooting is investigated by the Office of Citizen Complaints, homicide and internal affairs units, the cases are not officially cleared until the DA's investigation is complete and a charging decision letter has been sent.

There are currently 12 cases in some phase of review with the district attorney.

DA investigations into such cases have been given more resources because of Police Commission concerns, said Assistant District Attorney Alex Bastian. But such cases can't be rushed, especially when a police officer is involved. While time issues are related to a lack of resources, the DA's office has no power over outside bodies it relies on. For instance, the office relies on autopsy reports from the Medical Examiner's Office, which has itself a long backlog.

Despite the length of investigations, commission President Thomas Mazzucco said the backlog is nothing compared to when he was appointed to the commission in 2007.

“There was a backlog you wouldn't believe,” he said, adding that he is glad the DA plans to put more resources into the investigations.

Nonetheless, critics of the process, like civil-rights attorney John Burris, who represents the family of Alejandro Nieto, who was shot and killed in an officer-involved shooting earlier this year, say there is no excuse for such delays.

“I don't find it's encouraging for victims that these take so long and I often question whether it's necessary for that to occur,” said Burris. “Justice delayed is no justice at all.”

Pending cases highlighted at commission's meeting

This year, four officer-involved shootings have occurred, all of which are still under investigation. Those cases include the death of Alejandro Nieto, a shooting that injured an officer in the Mission, the shooting of a dog in the Bayview and another Bayview shooting in which an officer fired a weapon at a car that was reportedly attempting to hit another officer.

Besides the new cases, some high-profile cases remain open.

Take the May 10, 2012, standoff on Post Street.

When Rohnert Park investigators attempted to contact someone in a homicide investigation, they came under fire. After they retreated, a standoff ensued when the suspect reportedly began firing at officers from inside his barricaded apartment. At one point, the suspect tried to set his apartment on fire. The incident ended when an officer fired one round from a riffle, killing the suspect.

A look at officer-involved shooting cases, which were presented to the Police Commission early this month, gives a glimpse into the number of cases still pending and their outcome, and paints a narrative of the kinds of incidents that result in a shooting and how often officers were acting within policy, or within the rules that define how officers should act in such situations.

Of the 97 officer-involved shooting incidents since 2000, 33 have resulted in someone's death and 35 in injuries. In one case, two bystanders were wounded by gunfire.

In every case where someone was killed, the officers involved were found to have acted within policy.

Four incidents in which people died were self-inflicted gunshot wounds by off-duty officers. One was a suspect who turned a gun on himself.

The other deaths — 28 of them — were suspects who died from their wounds.

Three officer-involved shootings that have grabbed headlines in recent months:

March 21: Bernal Heights Park

Alejandro Nieto, 28, a San Francisco resident, was killed in Bernal Heights Park after being asked to show his hands but instead drawing a stun gun that was mistaken for a real gun, according to police.

March 8: Florida Street

Officer Adam Shaw and his partner were responding to a vandalism report near Florida and 25th streets in the Mission when they spotted a suspicious vehicle. When the officers approached the car, the driver, Jeffrey Ruano, began backing up. That prompted Shaw's partner to fire at the vehicle before it sped off. Shaw was wounded by a bullet. It is unknown who fired the round.

Oct. 27: Chestnut and Pierce streets

Police responded to a physical confrontation at a Bank of America. Rommel Narvaez allegedly struck a man on the head with a silver gun and fired several rounds in a struggle over the victim's bag. The suspect fled and allegedly turned his firearm on the officers, several of whom fired shots. The suspect was hit at least one time.

Source: Police Commission

Investigations of deadly force

20 – Number of officer-involved shootings since 2011 pending review

97 – Number of cases since 2000, pending and not pending investigation

33 – Number of people killed since 2000 in officer-involved shootings

61 – Number of officer-involved shooting cases found to be in policy since 2000

16 – Number of shootings found to be out of policy

Source: Police Commission

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