Before opening fire inside a small studio apartment earlier this month, a plainclothes San Francisco sheriff’s deputy was pacing around the hallway with his gun out for at least eight minutes.
When no one appeared to respond to a knock at the door, Public Defender Manohar Raju said the deputy’s colleague broke down the door with a battering ram.
The deputy then entered the room and fired a round that went through a man’s hand and killed his dog, Raju alleged Monday in a letter to Sheriff Vicki Hennessy obtained by the San Francisco Examiner.
Raju called the shooting a “preventable and unnecessary tragedy” and urged the sheriff to release the names of the four deputies involved in the incident.
“It appears that the deputies failed to take any precautions to avoid using force in this incident,” Raju wrote in the letter. “They appeared to be primed to fire their guns and one of them did.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the Sheriff’s Department identified the four deputies involved in the incident as Richard Balmy, Paul Lozada, Julio Molina and Viridiana Ponce.
The deputies were at the Broadway Hotel at 2048 Polk St. to arrest David Wesser on a bench warrant when one of them discharged his gun on the morning of Sept. 5.
Wesser, 33, was wanted on a felony no bail warrant for missing a court date six days earlier in connection with a burglary charge.
Whether the deputy who killed the dog actually shot Wesser is in dispute.
Nancy Crowley, a spokesperson for the sheriff, has told reporters that Wesser may have been bitten by his dog rather than shot in the hand.
“When the deputies opened the door, they were met with an aggressive pit bull,” Crowley said.
Harry Stern, an attorney whose office is representing all four deputies involved, said he agreed with the public defender that the shooting was a “preventable and unnecessary tragedy.”
But Stern placed blame for the shooting on Wesser, not on the deputies.
“The suspect in this case, Mr. Wesser, could and should have avoided any problems including the sad death of his dog, by opening the door during the over 40 minutes that the Sheriff’s Department told him to come out,” Stern said.
Stern said the deputies “absolutely had the authority both to demand for him to surrender and then to force open his hotel room door when he refused.”
“He should have restrained his dog rather than letting him loose to attack a law enforcement officer,” Stern said. “So yes, Mr. Wesser could have prevented this incident by obeying the law.”
The shooting highlighted the lack of policies that the Sheriff’s Department has around the handling of police shootings in comparison to the San Francisco Police Department.
Unlike the SFPD, the Sheriff’s Department does not have a policy requiring the department to notify outside agencies like the District Attorney’s Office about a deputy-involved shooting.
And while the SFPD has a policy to release the names of officers involved in police shootings within 10 days, the Sheriff’s Department has no such timeline.
But Crowley said the Sheriff’s Department did in this case immediately contact the SFPD and the District Attorney’s Office to investigate the shooting.
The department also plans to turn over an administrative investigation into the shooting to the Department of Police Accountability, The City’s police watchdog agency, Crowley said.
“We haven’t had a lot of deputy-involved shootings,” Crowley said. “We haven’t had one since 2012, and that was not on-duty.”
Crowley said the department has been working to update its policies for the last three years and plans to address the notification of outside agencies through the revisions.
The department plans to roll out the new policies in January and implement them in April, Crowley said.
Dana Drusinsky, an attorney with the Public Defender’s Office who is representing Wesser, called the whole situation unusual.
Drusinksy said it’s not uncommon for a defendant in Community Justice Court to miss a court date or for a bench warrant to be issued. But it is “unheard of” for deputies to serve a bench warrant on a case involving a low-level offense in particular.
“The way that they showed up was with their guns out and with a battering ram made it clear that they were expecting a violent situation from a nonviolent offender,” Drusinsky said. “There is nothing about this incident that required any form of violence.”
Drusinksy said the best way for the incident to have been handled would have been for his case manger to have called him and made sure he showed up at court.
The reason her client missed court in the first place on Aug. 30 was that he was in the hospital, Drusinsky said.
“That’s a legal reason to miss court,” she said. “It’s not a willful violation of a court order because you physically cannot make it to court.”
But Crowley said Wasser had been booked into jail 17 times since 2015 and had also failed to appear at court 17 times.
Drusinsky has no doubt that the deputy shot her client, since medical staff at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and at County Jail each treated Wesser for a gunshot wound, she said.
“I also saw the injury and it is very consistent with a gunshot wound,” Drusinsky said. “It was literally the size of a bullet. His whole hand was swollen. It was all black and blue, but there were no bite marks on his hand.”
Ken Lomba, president of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, declined to discuss the particulars of the case.
But Lomba called the letter from Raju to Hennessy “political grandstanding.”
“Our deputies will continue to carry out judges’ orders,” Lomba said. “It’s a shame that the Public Defender’s Office continues to demonize judges and peace officers.”