Within hours of the killing of Luis Gongora by police last week, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr stood before cameras and read directly from a printed dispatch record.
The department’s actions since the incident seem to contrast past shootings by police, like Mario Woods, for which Suhr has been criticized for too quickly painting a narrative favorable to police.
While police may be more transparent in the wake of Gongora’s killing, which marks nearly 70 killings by San Francisco police since 1990 — and 20 since 2000 in which a knife was said to be wielded by the suspect who was shot — the public seems not to have noticed.
“You are already prejudging what happened in the case,” said Supervisor David Campos, who represents the Mission district and spoke at a town hall meeting held by police Wednesday afternoon, blocks away from the site of the shooting.
“It’s irresponsible for the police to do that. … Stop trying the case in the public,” Campos added.
Suhr’s reply — “I didn’t say what I believed happened” — seemed to genuinely reflect a change in approach to such incidents.
Even such steps as telling the public how many witnesses have been interviewed and printing some of their statements did little to assuage a public increasingly mistrustful of police narratives following fatal shootings.
In the case of the most recent shooting by police on April 7, witnesses’ statements contradict one another about whether Gongora was threatening the three officers who approached him.
“It’s become very hard to trust what you say,” said Father Richard Smith of St. John the Evangelist.
Susan Cieutat, a 57-year-old former nurse, had similar thoughts.
“A badge is not a license to kill, and that’s what it’s become in San Francisco,” she said.
As the crowd of at least a 100 people chanted “Fire Chief Suhr,” called the officers in the room pigs and called for revolution, Suhr went over the details of the incident and answered questions.
At 9:57 a.m. on April 7, one of two Homeless Outreach Team members who were working with tent dwellers near Shotwell and 18th streets called 911, according to Suhr’s retelling of the incident.
The pair reported that Gongora was kicking a soccer ball off cars and in an “altered mental state.”
When two and then finally three officers arrived minutes later, they found Gongora sitting on the sidewalk holding a knife. After telling him to put the blade down, Suhr said Gongora did not comply, so one of the officer fired four bean bag rounds. But Gongora stood up and headed toward the officers, according to Suhr.
At that point, two officers fired seven rounds, six of which hit Gongora.
The officers, said Suhr, feared “he would kill one of them and fired their weapons to defend themselves.”
Suhr said the homicide unit has interviewed 12 witnesses, including the two homeless outreach workers as well as several people who have given what he said were contradictory statements to the media.
A couple who witnessed the shooting, for instance, told the San Francisco Examiner that Gongora did not raise his knife and was not posing a threat.
A nearby surveillance video, which caught part of the incident and audio of the shooting, reflected the speed at which the event escalated. Within about 30 seconds of their arrival the officers had opened fire.
The video had some at the meeting wondering why the officers acted so quickly and why they did not utilize the de-escalation techniques being pushed as part of on-going police reforms.
Suhr responded that they had little time to react or de-escalate the situation, but one speaker, former ACLU lawyer John Crew, said the officers did not follow department rules of conduct, which says officers should create time and distance so as not to escalate situations.
“If they created the mounting danger, they created the situation,” said Crew. “They should be responsible for their actions.”
Gongora comes from the town of Teabo in the Mexican state of Yucatan and was described Wednesday as a gentle man by Matt Castro, 40, who said he knew the man.
Castro, who was in tears at times as he spoke before a panel of police officers, said the acts described by police are “out of character” for the man who he knew as “kind-hearted” and “docile.” “He didn’t have a hostile bone in his body.”
Meanwhile, the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco has been in contact with Gongora’s family in California and Mexico and giving what assistance it can.
“We are profoundly sad by the death of Mr. Gongona,” said Consulate spokesman Mario Garcia. “We are in communication with the authorities demanding an exhaustive investigation of the case.”
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