No criminal charges will be filed against officers in a San Francisco police shooting that led to the abrupt resignation last year of Police Chief Greg Suhr, the District Attorney’s office announced Wednesday.
Jessica Williams, 29, was killed around 9:40 a.m. on May 19, 2016, on Helena Street by a single shot from Sgt. Justin Erb after she allegedly drove toward him in car that had been reported stolen.
Erb, Officer Eric Eastlund and one civilian were the only witnesses to the shooting, which occurred after officers conducting a stolen vehicle recovery operation spotted a Honda Accord listed as stolen, according to the report released by the DA’s office.
When they knocked on the window, Williams allegedly started the car and drove away, but crashed into a parked utility truck around 75 feet away. She then attempted to get away, first by reversing the vehicle back toward Eastlund, and then forward directly toward Erb, according to the report.
The shooting came at a time of rising protests over police shootings including the death of Mario Woods in the Bayview District in December 2015 and that of Luis Gongora in April 2016.
Suhr, who activists and even some elected officials had targeted with calls for resignation, pushed ahead with police reform efforts for several months but ultimately resigned just hours after Williams’ death.
Under state self-defense law, Erb had no legal duty to retreat, so the question of whether he could have ducked out of the Accord’s path does not factor into the decision on whether to file charges, the report notes. In addition, all three witness statements are largely in agreement about what happened.
“All of the available evidence suggests Sergeant Erb faced a volatile and unpredictable situation looking uphill at an approaching car when he fired his gun at Williams,” the DA’s office said in a statement. “Here, when the relevant legal and prosecutorial ethical standards are applied, the available evidence does not support the conclusion that Sergeant Erb’s use of deadly force was objectively unreasonable.”
The decision drew criticism from Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who has been outspoken in calling for an outside agency such as the state Attorney General’s office to investigate police shootings.
“I’m flabbergasted that the DA is saying it is OK to shoot at a person who appears to have been fleeing in a car,” Adachi said. “In this city, they prosecute people every day for shooting a weapon when the circumstances fall short of self-defense. How can you justify shooting a person when you easily could have stepped out of the way?”
Adachi said the decision sent “the wrong message to our citizens and the police” and suggested that officers could shoot even if their lives were not in danger.
The DA’s office also released reports Wednesday in two non-fatal officers involved shootings and one in-custody death, finding that no criminal charges were warranted in any of the cases.
The cases cleared included the Nov. 6, 2014 shooting of Jason Seymour by Officer Eduard Ochoa. Seymour, who survived the shooting, pleaded guilty to a felony charge of brandishing a firearm at a police officer in the incident.
They also include an Oct. 24, 2015, incident in which officers fired at Randal Maykopet during a pursuit after he allegedly stole a police vehicle, struck several vehicles on city streets and then drove to Treasure Island. Officers there fired at Maykopet as he maneuvered around a roadblock by driving on the sidewalk, but did not hit him.
The DA’s office also found that the June 10, 2016 death of Raymond Fields while he was in the custody of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department was due to natural causes.
The DA’s office’s investigations are focused solely on a question of whether criminal charges are warranted and would stand up in court, and do not consider questions of whether officers complied with department policies and procedures or whether they might face civil liability.