The officers who shot and killed Mario Woods and Luis Gongora Pat in a pair of police shootings that led up to the downfall of a San Francisco police chief will not face criminal charges, District Attorney George Gascon said Thursday.
Five officers unleashed a flurry of gunfire on Woods in the Bayview on Dec. 2, 2015 after he allegedly stabbed a man in the arm and refused to drop the knife. Graphic videos of the shooting elicited outrage as the Black Lives Matter movement came to prominence nationwide, and one city supervisor described the officers as an “ethnically diverse firing squad.”
Four months later, after the Woods shooting drove then-Chief Greg Suhr to bring in federal officials to review the policies and procedures of the San Francisco Police Department, two officers shot and killed Gongora within seconds of arriving at a Mission District homeless encampment on April 7, 2016.
Gascon said he decided not to charge the officers with murder or manslaughter in either case because prosecutors could not prove it was unreasonable for the officers to shoot Woods or Gongora. Reports released Tuesday from Gascon’s Independent Investigations Bureau found that both men moved toward officers.
“Personally, I’m very disturbed with these shootings and many other shootings because I don’t believe that they were necessary,” Gascon said. “Nevertheless, I’m duty-bound by the law as it is currently written.”
Gascon said there is a “gap in the law” that allows officers to use force against a suspect when it is reasonable rather than necessary. He added that Assembly Bill 931, which was introduced in the state legislature last year, would raise the standard for officers to use force.
“The conclusions that we all have collectively come to is frustrating,” Gascon said. “I don’t believe that as a society we should be comfortable with a state of affairs where people are being killed when it was not absolutely necessary, but that is what the law allows.”
John Burris, a prominent civil rights attorney who is suing San Francisco in federal court on behalf of both families, emphasized that Gascon had a choice and chose not to prosecute the officers.
“He has made a decision that he cannot prove the case,” Burris said. “That’s different than not being able to do it.”
Gascon has faced increasing pressure in recent months to press charges against the officers who shot Gongora. Activist Adriana Camarena, a spokesperson for the family, tallied up the results of police shooting investigations and found that Gascon has not charged an officer for a shooting since taking office in 2011.
“All we’re asking is just bring these cases to trial where all the evidence can be seen in the light of day,” said Father Richard Smith, a Mission District activist who protests police brutality. “If you are charged with a crime you are innocent until proven guilty. That would be true with these officers as well, but the case really needs to come to trial. The community at least deserves that much.”
The Gongora shooting was the final straw for a group of activists known as the Frisco Five, who went on a hunger strike in April 2016 to call for Suhr’s firing. In the midst of the furor, officers shot 29-year-old Jessica Williams as she fled in a stolen car on May 19, 2016. Suhr resigned the same day.
Activists called for Gascon to resign in response to the news Thursday.
“He does not have the courage to do his job,” Camarena told reporters outside the Hall of Justice. “If he can’t do his job, he should resign.”
Gascon was expected to meet with both families Thursday morning, but neither meeting happened. Gascon refused to meet with Gongora’s family because they wanted Camarena in the room.
“This is a very sad day,” Carlos Poot Pat, Gongora’s cousin, told reporters through a translator. “It’s incredible that DA Gascon having all the evidence on his desk will not have the courage to press charges against the killers of my cousin.”
Gwendolyn Woods, the mother of Mario Woods, could not make it to the meeting because she lives and works in Sacramento, according to Burris.
“I told her last night that it was not likely that any charges would be brought,” Burris said. “She is still in a lot of pain so it just added to her pain and sense of frustration and hopelessness.”
In a statement, Mayor Mark Farrell called the shootings tragedies but backed the decisions that Gascon made.
“I respect the District Attorney’s decision, and also acknowledge the pain it will cause in communities that have for so long been disproportionately impacted by violence,” Farrell said.
The Woods shooting started and ended within two minutes of officers arriving at the corner of Keith Street and Fitzgerald Avenue, where Woods was standing with a can of soda in his hand.
Wearing a black jacket and tan pants, Woods matched the description of a suspect who stabbed a man outside of a nearby apartment building earlier that afternoon, according to the IIB report.
The victim told investigators that Woods approached him while he sat in a car and an altercation ensued, during which Woods cut his arm and threatened to “stick your bitch ass.”
Investigators found that when two officers, Charles August and Brandon Thompson, later confronted Woods, he pulled out a kitchen knife and walked away on Third Street.
At least ten other officers arrived and formed a semi-circle around Woods. Officers heard him make “suicide-by-cop” statements, according to the report.
“You better squeeze that motherfucker and kill me,” Thompson reported hearing Woods say.
“You’re going to have to shoot me,” Officer Winston Seto recalled him say.
Investigators said Woods ignored commands to “drop the knife” and did not respond to pepper spray or bean bag rounds that police fired at him.
Woods instead walked in the direction of civilians who were standing in front of a nearby Muni bus, prompting August to step in front of him. Officers August, Seto, Antonio Santos, Nicholas Cuevas and Scott Phillips fired 26 rounds at Woods.
IIB said in the report it could not identify all of the officers on scene because “most SFPD we contacted refused to cooperate” with the investigation.
Multiple cellphone videos of the shooting surfaced soon afterward, showing Woods walking and crouching with the knife before police opened fire.
The videos contradicted an initial statement from Suhr, who said Woods had lunged at the officers.
The kitchen knife recovered from Woods had blood that matched the stabbing victim’s DNA, according to the report.
The Medical Examiner’s Office found 20 bullet wounds on Woods’ body and determined that he had been under the influence of methamphetamine.
An SFPD trainer determined that the officers acted within their training and a use-of-force expert found that the officers also acted within national standards.
The report found that officers reasonably used “lethal force rather than, for example, tackling Woods or using some other non-lethal method.”
“Officers are not trained to go ‘hands on’ with a suspect who has a knife or to use a baton to disarm such an individual,” the report found.
The Gongora shooting unfolded within just a matter of seconds from the time police responded to a call from the Homeless Outreach Team reporting a man with a knife at an encampment near 18th and Shotwell streets.
The caller told police that Gongora appeared to be under the influence, aggressive and “kinda scary looking,” but also that he was not waving the knife at anyone, according to the report.
Gongora was sitting on the sidewalk and holding a knife when three officers including Sgt. Nathaniel Steger and Officer Michael Mellone arrived.
Mellone told investigators he ordered Gongora to get on the ground. Gongora dropped the knife, but both officers saw him quickly picked it back up.
Gongora then refused orders to drop the knife and Mellone fired four bean bag rounds at him. At that point, both officers said Gongora ran toward Steger with the knife.
“I thought he [was] gonna kill Sergeant Steger,” Mellone said, according to the report. “There was no question in my mind. There was nobody else in the area that he was charging at, other than him,”
According to the report, 11 of the 13 witnesses to the incident saw police shoot Gongora. Eight of those witnesses “reported Gongora moved towards the officers,” while one of them saw Gongora make an “abrupt turn.”
Two witnesses did not see Gongora move toward officers, but investigators determined that their statements were unsubstantiated by physical evidence. One of those witnesses said Gongora “ran away” from the officers.
The witnesses included residents across the street from the shooting, workers at the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. building behind where Gongora was shot and others living in the tent encampment.
“The numerous statements made by multiple independent witnesses stating that Gongora came toward Sergeant Steger with a knife, combined with the physical evidence, makes this case not prosecutable,” the report said.
Surveillance video from across the street showed Gongora dribbling a basketball before the shooting and then walking around with an object that looked like a knife minutes before officers arrived, according to the report.
The video did not capture Gongora during the shooting. But audio showed that Steger first opened fire 14 seconds after Mellone ordered Gongora to the ground. The final shot rang out within 22 seconds of the first command.
The report did not determine whether the officers used appropriate crisis intervention training to deescalate the situation.
The Medical Examiner’s Office later determined that Gongora suffered six gunshot wounds, including a fatal shot to the head. The office also found that Gongora was under the influence of methamphetamine.
“Gongora’s methamphetamine level was high enough to kill or hospitalize a non-habitual user,” according to the report.
After the decisions Thursday, Burris said the families will continue to pursue their cases in federal court.
The Woods lawsuit claims that officers used excessive force after an officer stepped in front of Woods. “The hail of gunfire was the inevitable result of the officer placing himself and his gun directly in front of the disoriented young man,” attorneys wrote in the lawsuit.
The Gongora lawsuit claims that the officers shot Gongora from behind and in the side while he tried to escape with his life. Gongora was a Mayan immigrant who did not understand the officers’ commands in English or Spanish.
The lawsuit also alleges that police abandoned de-escalation tactics and closed their distance with Gongora instead of creating time and space.
Both cases are outstanding.