What should have been an ordinary arrest of an unarmed auto burglary suspect went wrong last week when a San Francisco police officer says his firearm unintentionally “went off,” injuring the suspect.
The police shooting of Xavier Pittman, 23, has since prompted Police Chief Bill Scott to apologize and launch a review of his body-worn camera policies for officers working in civilian clothing. The chief has also halted all plainclothes operations at district stations while reviewing their policies and training.
Pittman was struck once in the wrist when Officer Zachary McAuliffe and another plainclothes officer tried to arrest him with their guns drawn in an alley near Third and Brannan streets May 7 in connection with a car break-in spree that spanned across various neighborhoods of San Francisco.
While the incident was recorded by security cameras, Scott said the officers were exempt from wearing body cameras at the time of the shooting because they were working in plainclothes.
But Adante Pointer, a civil rights attorney who is representing Pittman, said that policy should change.
“All officers should wear cameras,” Pointer said Friday. “If those [security] cameras had not been there in that alleyway, I bet we would be hearing a totally different story.”
Having video of the shooting ensured there was “no debate” about what happened in the alley that day or whether Pittman did anything to require police to use deadly force against him, Pointer said.
And based on the security footage, law enforcement sources say McAuliffe may have acted outside of department training that advises officers not to have their firearms out when coming into physical contact with a subject.
Doing so during an arrest or detention could result in officer safety issues including being disarmed, the sources said.
“You could shoot yourself or the suspect,” Pointer said of the practice.
Security video from the alley shows Pittman sifting through items near the trunk of a vehicle when McAuliffe and the other officer rushed him from behind and one of the officers grabbed him.
Another camera did not record the shooting but captured audio of police announcing their presence immediately before a single gunshot went off.
“I didn’t do nothing,” Pittman can be heard saying. “You shot me.”
At a virtual town hall meeting on the case Thursday, Scott departed from his usual routine of initially withholding judgement on police shootings and said the incident “quite simply should not have happened.”
The San Francisco Police Department’s body camera policy from 2016 requires officers to activate the recording devices during detentions, arrests, uses of force and other circumstances.
But Scott said there is an exemption for officers working certain plainclothes operations, like the one ongoing when the shooting occurred.
Scott said he is planning to draft policy changes around plainclothes operations for the Police Commission to consider.
Police Commissioner John Hamasaki said a number of issues have surfaced since the oversight body first adopted the body-worn camera policy about five years ago.
He supports tightening the requirements around when plainclothes officers have to wear body cameras and said physical encounters should at minimum be “recorded from a safe distance.”
“Any plainclothes interactions with civilians or suspects should be recorded,” Hamasaki said. “If there are circumstances where it jeopardizes officer safety to do so, then the police can determine an alternate means of recording the incident such as they’ve done with drug operations in the past.”
Police Commission Vice President Cindy Elias also said a review of the policy exemptions is warranted “in light of this incident and our commitment to transparency and accountability.”
Like Scott, McAuliffe apologized to Pittman for the shooting. He issued a statement through his attorney saying he felt badly and wished Pittman a speedy recovery.
Pittman was booked on suspicion of auto burglary and other charges after the shooting. The District Attorney’s Office does not appear to have filed charges against him as of Friday.
“Our office is awaiting the full police reports from SFPD, it’s an ongoing investigation,” said spokesperson Rachel Marshall.
Multiple investigations are also underway into the police shooting itself.