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Keeping the peace, preserving lives

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Janee Taylor, neighbor of a man who was shot and killed by police, speaks to the media after an officer involved shooting on Shotwell Street near 19th Street in San Francisco Thursday. (Ekevara Kitpowsong/Special to S.F. Examiner)

As a city, we grant our police officers profound powers, placing guns in their hands and giving them discretion over when to use them in the name of protecting the public. It is the power over life and death, and we again witnessed a conflict on Thursday when a group of officers, apparently in fear for their own safety, shot and killed a man on the streets.

This time the victim was a homeless man who was reportedly living among a growing encampment along the Mission’s Shotwell Street, between 18th and 19th streets.

It is unclear how the officers either de-escalated or escalated the situation to its fatal conclusion. Police Chief Greg Suhr said the officers, responding to reports of a man with a knife, tried to subdue him by shooting him with beanbags. The man “got up and charged with the knife,” Suhr said, at which point he was shot at seven times with a .40 caliber pistol.

The man, identified on Friday as Luis Gongora, 45, who witnesses said spoke Spanish, died from the injuries hours later at San Francisco General Hospital.

This current procedure — shooting a suspect with beanbags, shouting orders with guns drawn despite signs that the individual may not understand, either due to language issues or other impairments, and then opening fire when compliance is not given — has proven stunningly ineffective at ending too many of these recent incidents peacefully.

Thursday’s killing too closely mirrors the recent controversial deaths at the hands of police of Mario Woods, Amilcar Perez-Lopez and Alex Nieto. With Woods, a video of the shooting last December revealed him holding a knife but with his hands down, contradicting SFPD claims of his threatening behavior that warranted lethal force.

In all four incidents, eye witness accounts of the shootings differed from police accounts, and in the case of Perez-Lopez and Nieto, they did not speak English, making it unclear how much they understood from the police.

Gongora’s shooting was the first known death by S.F. police since Woods, and comes amid growing criticism of SFPD’s tactics in potentially violent situations.

As Examiner reporter Jonah Owen Lamb wrote last week, efforts to reform the SFPD’s use of force policy — including those proposed by Mayor Ed Lee — are in serious danger of being derailed. Last week’s Police Commission meeting on the issue revealed more entrenched positions than potential for progress. The stalemate hopefully won’t last through another fatal incident on the streets.

Witnesses on Thursday gave conflicting accounts that ran counter to what the SFPD reported. They said Gongora did not charge police or threaten them with a knife. They said that the knife was in his waistband the whole time. They said that he had been kicking a soccer ball before police arrived. They claim he might have not understood what the police were saying to him.

A video emerged Friday giving audio of the shots, off camera, that killed Gongora Thursday on Shotwell Street. The gunshots seemed to erupt within seconds of police calls to drop the weapon. Training officers to give suspects time and distance to de-escalate such situations are at the center of proposed reforms. The quick succession of events Thursday leaves serious doubt about whether those tactics were used.

Will another video of Friday’s shooting emerge to further clarify the situation, as it did with Woods’ death? If the SFPD has such a video, it is not saying.

SFPD on Friday called a press briefing to counter initial media reports that witnesses said the man did not pull out a knife.

“He moved towards officers with a knife in his hand,” said Cmdr. Greg McEachern.

As with Woods, Thursday’s shooting must be the subject of an independent investigation, and it must also give renewed impetus to debate how the police handle these incidents and reform the department’s use-of-force policies.

The police might have acted properly or not in Friday’s shooting according to current department procedures — but even if they followed department rules, it may say more about the need for revamped police procedures than it does about the legitimacy of the fatal shootings.

No one is accusing the San Francisco police of seeking out opportunities to use deadly force against citizens, but once officers engage in confrontations like the one on Thursday — or last December and other times before that — the resulting loss of life is too predictable, too awful to be allowed to continue unchecked. It is a matter of life and death.

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