San Francisco police shot and killed a homeless man in the Mission on Thursday morning, the latest in a series of recent fatal police shootings that have prompted calls for reform.
Not unlike in the controversial deaths of Mario Woods, Amilcar Perez-Lopez and Alex Nieto at the hands of police in recent years, the circumstances that led up to the death of the unidentified man near a homeless encampment this week are again disputed.
The man, who reportedly was living among a row of tents on Shotwell Street between 18th and 19th streets, was shot just after 10 a.m. during a brief confrontation with officers that began when homeless outreach workers called police to report a man waving a large kitchen knife.
According to San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr, who was citing the Computer Automated Dispatch system that The City uses to coordinate emergency services, the man had a knife with a 10-12 inch blade and was “challenging” officers.
A sergeant and an officer opened fire on the man at first with a less-lethal shotgun, discharging four beanbags, but when the man “got up and charged with the knife” he was shot at seven times with a .40 caliber pistol, Suhr said.
The man was taken to San Francisco General Hospital in critical condition and underwent surgery. Around 1 p.m. he died from his injuries, according to hospital officials.
Suhr said police recovered the knife on the ground at the scene.
But two witnesses to the fatal police shooting said the man was never waving the knife around. Rather, the witnesses said he had the blade secured to his waistband both before and during the interaction with police.
“The knife was up on his hip the whole time,” said 33-year-old John Visor, who lives in a tent on Shotwell next to the man police shot. “He didn’t have no knife in his hand when the officers were around him.”
Visor, who said the man’s name was Jose, said the man was kicking around a soccer ball before police pulled up to the scene in two cars and an SUV. Two officers asked him and the woman he lives with, Stephanie Grant, 31, if they had seen anyone with a knife. They said no.
It’s unclear when police first made contact with the man, but Visor said he saw his friend begin to walk around in circles in front of the officers. “They told him to stay in one spot and put the knife down, he didn’t have no knife in his hand,” Visor said.
“The next thing, one the officers had a shotgun in their hand,” Visor recalled. “He cocked it back and hit him with the beanbag two times. And that’s when the sergeant pulled his gun out and opened fire right then.”
Visor said the knife fell out of his friend’s belt when he was shot and his body hit the ground.
Both Visor and Grant were standing less than ten feet away from their friend when police shot him, they said. Grant backed up Visor’s story.
“It shouldn’t have happened the way it did,” Grant said. “I wasn’t even trying to get involved. I should have.”
Police officials have been working toward reforming the department to better handle knife carrying suspects, in particular since the fatal police shooting of Woods.
Woods was shot and killed by police in the Bayview last December while reportedly carrying a knife. Witness video of the shooting stirred outrage over police brutality across the nation.
After the shooting, Woods’ mother said that her son had been struggling with his mental health after he was released from jail.
Demetrius Charleston, who lives in the tent next to the man police shot and killed Thursday on Shotwell Street, said the man was a good, hard-working person who seemed to have “a little problem with his anger.”
“He’d start screaming. He’d just cuss,” Charleston said. “He wasn’t fit for this area. Whenever you got mental health problems you’re not fit out here because you gotta work with the public.”
According to his friends, the homeless man used the knife for safety while out collecting bottles and cans, as well as to chop the branches off trees near his tent. He was known in the area for sweeping the sidewalk with a broom and kicking around his soccer ball.
“I lost a best friend,” Visor said.
Charleston said he would bum cigarettes off him in Spanish.
Like Perez-Lopez, the young Guatemalan immigrant shot and killed by San Francisco police last year about six blocks away from the scene Thursday’s police shooting, the homeless man did not understand English, according to his neighbors.
“He can’t understand us when we tell him to stop and stuff,” said Visor. We “just have to go to somebody else who speaks Spanish to translate to him.”
Reyna Maldonado, a neighbor who lives near a homeless encampment on Shotwell Street and 18th, signs the tent of Luis Gongora, who was shot and killed by San Francisco Police Department officers on April 7 (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriquez/S.F. Examiner)