Shooting of homeless man by San Francisco police spawns differing stories

The trial of a homeless, wheelchair-bound man with mental health issues who earlier this year stabbed a police officer after being pepper-sprayed began Wednesday.

Randal Dunklin, 56, is facing assault charges stemming from his confrontation with police in January. But Dunklin’s attorney has put the police on trial. Officers were filmed by a bystander shooting Dunklin while he was in his wheelchair.

On Jan. 4, police were called to a Department of Public Health building in the South of Market area, where Dunklin was reportedly belligerent and stabbing parking meters and slashing tires with a knife.

Police ordered Dunklin to drop his knife nearly 50 times, and Dunklin would only respond by swearing at them and waving the knife around, prosecutor Sanaz Nikaein told jurors.

The officers “acted reasonably” and “did everything to avoid using lethal force,” Nikaein said.

After being hit with pepper spray, Dunklin stabbed an officer in the arm, requiring about 20 stitches. Officers then shot him with a bean-bag gun in an attempt to subdue him. When Dunklin threw his knife at officers’ feet, two of them fired their handguns, hitting him twice.

Nikaein told jurors the shooting was irrelevant to the charges against Dunklin, though she insisted the officers had feared for their lives.

“He wasn’t going down without a fight,” Nikaein said.

But Dunklin’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Danielle Harris, told the jury that the case was about “colossally bad judgment, excessive force and how the power structure operates to protect its own.”

Harris said Dunklin, who was born with polio and is now homeless and severely depressed, had been trying to receive services, but kept getting put off.

It was only when several plainclothes officers surrounded Dunklin, began screaming at him and pepper-sprayed him that “all hell broke loose,” Harris said. Dunklin threw his knife to the ground “in agony,” was “completely defenseless” and was shot in his wheelchair while turned at a 90-degree angle from the officers, she said. One bullet hit him in the side, and the other went through his penis into his leg, she said.

The trial is expected to last into November. The two officers who shot Dunklin are still under investigation by the state Attorney General’s Office. Dunklin has also filed a civil lawsuit against them.

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