Put away your pom-poms, silence your cheers.
Last week, San Francisco police shot and killed Mario Woods, who Chief Greg Suhr said was a threat to officers. Woods wielded a knife, after allegedly stabbing someone. Woods’ grisly death was widely seen via Instagram video.
Now, Suhr has announced an expansion of less-lethal options for his force. Like in the United Kingdom, the San Francisco Police Department will soon have riot shields to battle knife-wielders.
Perhaps Woods’ death, dreadful as it was, may lead to real change in The City.
Though the new tool is a good step forward, it’s not enough. What does it matter if we give officers riot shields, if they still believe their best method for survival in the face of violence is a firearm? We need to wean the SFPD off relying on the gun as the solution for all problems, especially knives. A gun is a safety blanket, codified in law.
Right now, SFPD use-of-force policy embraces an “escalating scale of options” in its Department General Orders. If a suspect raises fists, the police raise a baton. If a suspect pulls a knife, SFPD points a gun. The police must always escalate, in this system, for public and personal safety.
This is how Woods died. His kitchen knife inevitably drew a hailstorm of bullets.
Suhr argues Tasers should’ve been the go-to, less lethal weapon in The City, but Tasers can kill those with weak hearts, a nonstarter. What we’re left with is the shield. Suhr pledged to buy new shields for his officers, but the best minds in policing say new tools aren’t enough.
The UK points the way, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. They use a slow, patient approach, he said.
“It’s completely the opposite of how American police are trained. They meet a threat with a counter use of force,” Wexler said, “In the UK, it starts with talking, engaging.”
Last Friday, Suhr reached out to Wexler. Wexler said PERF is now establishing best use practices for de-escalation training, which by next summer may be introduced across the United States — and also in San Francisco, thanks to Woods.
When that training is ready, Suhr should embrace it and transform his cops from warriors to guardians. Mayor Ed Lee, to his credit, said he supports this in general, but the level to which they’ll commit to de-escalation tactics is up in the air.
On Wednesday, the Police Commission may overhaul SFPD use-of-force practices. They’d do well to read PERF’s recent report, “Re-Engineering Use of Force.” The report notes many methods, like that of Chief Inspector Robert Pell of the Greater Manchester Police, UK, who trains his officers in de-escalation tactics. Instead of shouting, “Put the knife down now!” at full blast, his officers calmly soothe suspects into putting down their weapons.
There’s also a startling video online that shows UK police, armed only with shields and batons, subduing a crazed machete-wielding man. Not a gun in sight.
“We train officers to realize that their behavior and attitude will have an impact on the other person’s behavior and attitude,” Pell said in the report.
No one is saying SFPD should give up guns entirely. As the PERF report notes, police in the United States contend with far more street-level gun violence than their UK counterparts. Knife-wielding threats, however, demand more patient tactics than we have now.
At a community meeting last Friday, Suhr showed hundreds of grieving, confused and angry Bayview community members a bulletin board explaining his officers’ actions.
Woods’ cousin sobbed as Suhr described a freeze-frame of video, showing Woods’ arm outstretched, allegedly wielding a kitchen knife. This was why officers fired, Suhr said. Understandable from an officer’s point of view, perhaps, but not the public’s.
“As a father and member of this community, I fear you,” said Michael Red, a Bayview community member. He held his son, also named Michael, in his arms. “I fear for my son,” Red said.
Sins aside, Woods was someone’s son, too. He deserved a chance at redemption.
Former officer Ralph Brown, who is now a spokesman at Peace Officers Standards and Training, the statewide trainers of SFPD, told me a possible thought process for the shooting:
“How long are they supposed to walk along the sidewalk with the suspect? At some point you have to draw a line in the sand,” he said.
Except, maybe you don’t.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.