‘Comply or die’ mentality must end for SFPD

The shooting death of Mario Woods by at least five San Francisco police officers on a Bayview street last week has produced a loud public outcry and emotional public meetings, with many calling for charges against the officers.

We urge District Attorney George Gascon to make sure justice is done in this case and to fully consider whether criminal charges can be filed. In addition, the episode has put a harsh light on the culture of policing by the San Francisco Police Department, especially in regards to how it interacts with communities of color in The City. The level of violence, vitriol and apparent disregard for human life the officers appeared to bring to the streets of the Bayview on the afternoon of Dec. 2 was shocking and troubling.

The incident was caught on video by bystanders, thankfully offering a counterweight to the official narrative that this was a justified shooting of a person who was threatening officers’ lives.

The videos are a terrifying indictment of how SFPD’s policy of escalation leads to horrific consequences. The department follows a use-of-force policy that embraces an “escalating scale of options” in its Department General Orders — if a suspect pulls a knife, the police pull a gun. With that kind of hot-head macho approach, if the suspect doesn’t show the proper respect to authority, things can get ugly fast.

Police Chief Greg Suhr said that Woods, spotted by officers searching for a suspect in an earlier knife attack that day, was carrying a knife that he refused to drop. Officers reportedly ordered him to drop the knife and shot him with bean bags and pepper spray. Woods, surrounded by at least half a dozen officers yelling with guns drawn, appears in the video to try to walk away from the scene when the officers fired.

Maybe there was a stark, imminent threat not apparent in the videos, but if the mentality of the police department is that a lack of deference to their authority is to invite death, then some serious changes are in order. Suhr has claimed Woods raised his knife and moved toward the officer who was stepping into his path. KQED this week offered compelling analysis on the video in slow motion, seemingly to show the first shot was fired before Woods raised his arm. In any case, the overwhelming firepower brought to bear on Woods — a torrent of bullets -— was appalling and raises serious questions about police tactics and training.

On Monday, Mayor Ed Lee and Suhr announced the department would use shields for such confrontations and suggested reopening the debate on the use of Tasers and other less-lethal weapons to subdue a suspect. These are conversations The City should have, but we cannot accept the narrative, favored by Lee and Suhr, that what happened was unfortunate but unavoidable, and that if only the police had more weapons it could have ended differently.

The basic policing tool most prominently lacking in this incident was common sense.

The outcome was eminently avoidable, but the sad fact is that with the training officers receive, or rather the lack of training, the outcome was predictable. The “comply or die” mentality ingrained in the SFPD was the prime escalator of the conflict. Without a
commitment to de-escalate confrontations, Woods never stood a chance of getting off that block alive. His mother called it an “execution,” and the firing squad imagery on the videos is tough to refute. The truth is Woods’ death was a result of a policy and culture failure that runs to the very top of the SFPD and city leadership.

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