Watchdog pins police killing of Mario Woods on policy failures

High-profile shooting prompted widespread outrage, calls for police reform

San Francisco’s police watchdog found that the officers involved in the police killing of Mario Woods used unnecessary force, but the agency did not seek discipline against them, newly released records show.

The Department of Police Accountability instead blamed the high-profile shooting on policy failures rather than the officers who opened fire on Woods in December 2015, according to a report on its findings released Thursday.

The DPA concluded that the San Francisco Police Department failed to require the use of de-escalation tactics at the time. The Police Commission later updated the SFPD use-of-force policy to emphasize the need for time and distance in response to the shooting.

Woods was killed when five officers responding to a report of a stabbing fired 26 rounds at him on a Bayview sidewalk, while another three officers either used bean-bag guns or pepper spray against him. Video of the shooting prompted widespread outrage and calls for police reform.

The DPA found that their actions each amounted to a “policy failure.”

“Arguably, the named officers’ conduct at the moment they used deadly force could be found in policy in light of the Department’s Use of Firearm policy that existed at the time of the incident,” the DPA wrote in July 2020. “In fact, SFPD did find the officers’ conduct in policy.

“However, when considering the entire chain of events that lead to the officers’ use of lethal force, the DPA concludes that the excessive force allegation is the result of a policy failure,” the DPA continued.

The DPA made a series of policy recommendations to the SFPD regarding the investigation and review of police shootings as well as of less-lethal options used during such incidents.

The SFPD did not return a request for comment.

Tony Montoya, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, blasted the DPA in a statement to the San Francisco Examiner.

“Law enforcement professionals investigated this case and determined that our officers acted within the law and department policy,” Montoya said. “We trust their professional expertise over that of political appointees.”

SFPD Internal Affairs has previously found that the five officers who shot Woods acted within department policy. Then-District Attorney George Gascon also declined to charge the officers in 2018, but he did call the shooting “unnecessary.”

Gascon later used the shooting to advocate for state legislation that raised the standard required for when officers can legally use deadly force.

DPA Director Paul Henderson could not comment directly on the case but noted the work his department has done to update SFPD policy.

“DPA made several policy recommendations as a result of this case, many of which have already been implemented,” Henderson said.

The five officers who shot at Woods are Charles August, Winston Seto, Antonio Santos, Nicholas Cuevas and Scott Phillips.

Officers Shaun Navarro, Jennifer Traw and Jesse Ortiz either used a bean-bag gun or pepper spray against him.

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