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SF officer involved in recent shooting reassigned to bureau handling reforms

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Members of the community hold signs in protest during a Town Hall meeting in response to the April 7 police shooting death of Luis Gongora held at the Laborers International Union building in San Francisco’s Mission District Wednesday, April 13, 2016. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

A San Francisco police officer involved in one of the latest fatal shootings of a civilian is now working in a unit heading up reforms that aim to prevent such killings.

Luis Gongora, 45, was fatally shot by police near Shotwell and 18th streets on April 7. Authorities said Gongora, who allegedly had a knife, was shot after bean bag rounds were unsuccessful in subduing him.

Witnesses have claimed that the scene unfolded quickly — in direct contrast with the San Francisco Police Department’s new policy that emphasizes time and distance with suspects.

Critics of the department’s actions — putting one of the officers involved in Gongora’s killing in such a unit — say it undermines their belief in reforms at a time when trust is already at a low ebb.

“It is shocking to hear that given that the Gongora case is still under investigation, that one of the officers involved, and thus may have been involved in misconduct, is working in a department unit heading reforms,” Supervisor David Campos said. “It sends a horrible message to the Gongora family and the community at large. It is further proof that the department doesn’t get it and needs reform.”

In January, then-Police Chief Greg Suhr created a new bureau in the department focused on leading reform efforts following the killing of Mario Woods by police in December 2015.

The Professional Standards and Principled Policing Bureau — first headed by current Interim Police Chief Toney Chaplin — was meant to act as a liaison to the Department of Justice’s review of SFPD and help craft new policy aimed at reducing the number of people killed at the hands of police.

Police spokesperson Sgt. Michael Andraychak said the department “cannot comment on an active, ongoing investigation.”

Soon after Gongora was killed, the department identified the two officers — Sgt. Nate Steger and Officer Michael Mellone — as those involved in the shooting.

Since then, the department has transferred Steger to a position in the bureau heading its reform efforts. He is one of four officers focusing specifically on reforms in the bureau; about 20 additional officers work on community engagement, recruitment and retention.

“Wow. That’s insane,” said Ilych Sato, who’s also known as Equipto — one of five people who participated in the “Frisco 5” hunger strike after Gongora’s death in April.

Public Defender Jeff Adachi noted the April incident seemed to be an example of exactly what officers should not do in such situations.

“It seems very strange that they would put him in that position,” Adachi said. “It appears that he’s been put in a position of preventing people from doing exactly what he did. I would wonder what kinds of training he has received.”

A video of a portion of the incident showed several officers arriving at the scene and, within seconds, firing beanbags and then live rounds at Gongora, who they said was wielding a knife.

Witnesses said the incident unfolded much differently, claiming Gongora had been playing with a ball when police arrived, and that they did not see him wield a knife before police shot and killed him.

The alleged police tactics used in Gongora’s case seem to be at odds with the new approach to such incidents, originally pushed by Suhr. The approach — codified in a new use-of-force policy — focuses on creating time and distance with subjects and includes language that sanctifies human life so as to limit the number of fatal police incidents.

Steger, who could not be reached for comment, wrote an introduction to a Police Officers Association story in 2015 about using breathing exercises to calm oneself during such incidents.

“This practice not only makes officers react to situations from a place of calmness and mindfulness,” wrote Steger. “For many of us, however, in this highly stressful yet noble profession, we have failed to integrate this practice into the fabric of our personal and professional lives because it hasn’t yet become a part of our training. Until now.”

Steger is a member of the police reform group Blue Courage organization, along with Jack Hart, the bureau’s main spokesperson at recent public meetings.

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