The mother of a man fatally shot by a San Francisco police officer earlier this month has hired prominent civil rights attorney John Burris, who said he will investigate the man’s “improper and wrong” death.
Burris’ involvement — which he described as an “investigation” pending a possible lawsuit — may be the first step in finding answers for a community startled and angered by the killing of a man suspected in a carjacking, but who the community asserts did not deserve to die.
“Unless someone is breaking into the car with a gun or a crowbar, your life is not in danger,” Burris told the San Francisco Examiner on Friday. “It does not justify the use of deadly force.”
Keita O’Neil, 42, was shot Dec. 1 by an officer who had been on the job for only four days, according to the San Francisco Police Department. O’Neil was shot after he allegedly stole a California State Lottery truck and was pursued by officers into the Bayview District.
Body camera footage released by the SFPD at a town hall meeting Thursday night shows two officers in a patrol car chase the truck O’Neil drove to the area of Fitzgerald Avenue and Griffith Street.
According to an account of the incident by police, O’Neil allegedly exited the van while it was still running. As the van rolled down a hill, O’Neil ran toward the patrol car.
That’s when the officer sitting in the passenger’s seat shot him.
The officer’s name has not been released.
Police described O’Neil as running toward “the direction of the marked SFPD vehicle while the van he drove continued to roll forward, striking a fence” before the officer fired their weapon.
The officer’s gun fired through the patrol car passenger window while the officer was seated. Burris told the Examiner that he is most concerned that no weapon has been found at the scene of O’Neil’s death.
“It caught my attention” because the situation “struck me as improper and wrong,” Burris said. “If the person is running ostensibly by you, it doesn’t give you the right to kill this person.”
Burris is well-known for his role in prosecuting police misconduct cases, including the infamous Oakland “Riders” case, in which four Oakland police officers were accused of brutalizing 119 people, according to news reports. The city of Oakland ultimately settled.
On Friday, Burris viewed O’Neil’s body at a funeral home, an early step in his investigation.
“[O’Neil sustained] one gunshot wound right below the right clavicle, midsection,” he said. There was “no exit [wound].”
Burris said he saw one scrape on the back of O’Neil’s head.
Witnesses at the scene of O’Neil’s death exclusively told the Examiner they saw him on the ground face down, in what appeared to be a pool of his own blood. Those witnesses said police officers then turned the body over onto his back and tried to administer CPR.
Burris, who was aware of this statement, said, “I can’t tell if he fell backwards or not” from the wounds on O’Neil’s body.
The civil rights attorney also visited O’Neil’s mother, who lives in the Bayview.
“She is not well. She’s bedridden,” Burris said, noting he is unaware if O’Neil had siblings. Burris described O’Neil’s mother’s state as “emotional, very emotional, sad. Very much sad. [In] disbelief, but acknowledging.”
At Thursday’s town hall meeting, Police Chief Bill Scott expressed his condolences to O’Neil’s family.
“Before we go any further, I’d like to give my condolences to the family,” Scott said. Though Scott and Capt. Valerie Matthews described the incident in detail, they did not comment on whether O’Neil’s death was justified by the officer, citing an ongoing investigation.
Despite all assurances, Burris said that O’Neil’s mother has an iron-clad opinion of the SFPD.
“[She] certainly believes they murdered her son.”