The family of a homeless man shot and killed by police in the Mission is calling for the officers to be fired after San Francisco’s police watchdog agency found the officers unnecessarily escalated the situation.
For advocates and relatives of 45-year-old Luis Gongora Pat, whether the officers face discipline over the April 2016 shooting will be a test of the San Francisco Police Department’s commitment to reform.
The San Francisco Examiner first reported Tuesday that the Department of Police Accountability had recommended suspension for Sgt. Nathaniel Steger and Officer Michael Mellone.
The DPA found that Mellone failed to “create time and distance” before firing a bean bag gun at Gongora Pat, who was sitting with a knife and experiencing an apparent mental health crisis near Shotwell and 18th streets.
While the SFPD’s Internal Affairs Division reached a similar conclusion, IAD only recommended additional training for both officers, which experts say is not considered discipline under state law.
The recommendations set up a conflict that will likely play out before the Police Commission.
Adriana Camarena, a spokesperson for the family, urged Police Chief Bill Scott and the Police Commission to “send a strong message about consequences for officers who don’t abide by the most basic policies on maintaining time and distance.”
“What Luis Pot (Pat) told me was that he wants to ensure that these officers are not only suspended but fired so that they are never in a position to harm another family again,” said Camarena, referring to Gongora Pat’s cousin.
Prior to the shooting, then-Police Chief Greg Suhr repeatedly stressed the importance of his officers creating time and distance with mentally ill subjects. He reportedly called the rule “easy to follow.”
“The ‘time and distance’ de-escalation obligation means nothing if officers are not disciplined when people die because they’re ignored,” said retired ACLU attorney John Crew.
But Tony Montoya, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, defended the officers.
Montoya said DPA’s attempts to discipline officers involved in dangerous situations with armed subjects “will lead to police officers or innocent bystanders getting killed.”
“When police officers are being physically attacked by an armed subject, they must be allowed to defend themselves,” Montoya previously told the Examiner.
Time and distance
The Gongora Pat shooting prompted a hunger strike by activists calling for the resignation of Suhr and a wrongful death lawsuit against The City that resulted in a $140,000 settlement earlier this year.
The shooting unfolded within seconds after Mellone and Steger responded to a 911 call about a man waving a knife around.
Gongora Pat was sitting on the ground with the knife at his side when officers arrived, according to the DPA. He initially dropped the knife in compliance with police commands, before picking it back up while remaining seated.
Mellone then fired the bean bag gun at Gongora Pat in an apparent attempt to disarm him.
But the DPA found that the bean bag rounds only agitated the homeless man, prompting him to move quickly toward police with the knife in a slashing position. Mellone and Steger then shot him.
While finding that Mellone failed to create time and distance, the DPA and IAD each deemed the deadly use of force justified or within department policy.
Last May, District Attorney George Gascon declined to criminally charge the officers for the shooting.
Three department bulletins at the time collectively required officers to “create time, distance, and establish a report with people in crisis who are only a danger to themselves,” according to IAD.
The DPA determined that Gongora Pat was not a threat to anyone but himself until Mellone shot him with a bean bag gun. The watchdog faulted Steger for failing to supervise Mellone.
The DPA went on to find that Mellone “failed to follow almost every directive” for using the bean bag gun, including having an ambulance on standby and formulating a plan with other officers.
According to the DPA, Mellone argued that he could not follow the guidelines because Gongora posed an immediate threat. But the DPA disputed that.
“The theory that they’ve essentially endorsed is what we’ve been saying from day one,” said Adante Pointer, an attorney with the John Burris Law Firm who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the family.
“You have an officer who on his own, in a cowboy manner, immediately gets out of the car and starts shooting the bean bag shotgun at Mr. Gongora,” Pointer continued. “If he had not have done that, then Mr. Gongora would still be here today.”
Pointer called for both officers to be fired, but in particular Mellone.
“When an officer’s decisions violate his training … and wind up with somebody being dead, then we’re not talking about a slap on the wrist,” Pointer said.
Pointer said he had not seen the recommendations until this week, even though IAD completed its investigation last August.
The DPA released its findings and the IAD recommendations Tuesday in response to a public records request filed under Senate Bill 1421, a new state transparency law requiring the release of internal files in police shooting and other cases.
“We’re working diligently and really hard to make sure that we are following the law and to make sure that we are compliant with the requests that we get,” said DPA Director Paul Henderson. “I’m proud of our aggressive approach to releasing information.”
The DPA recommended a 45-day suspension for Mellone and a 30-day suspension for Steger.
Specifically, the watchdog sustained a Neglect of Duty complaint against Mellone for failing to comply with department policy on using a bean bag gun and a Neglect of Duty complaint against Steger for failing to properly supervise.
Like the DPA, IAD found that Mellone “failed to observe, maintain a safe distance, and attempt to stabilize the scene until the arrival of a supervisor,” as required by a department bulletin on responding to mental health calls for armed subjects.
Though Mellone had undergone Crisis Intervention Training, the IAD report said the department did not provide training at the time “that coordinated the management of this obligation with officer safety and proper field tactics.”
The department has since updated its Crisis Intervention Training course, according to IAD.
IAD recommended crisis intervention and field tactics trainings for both officers, as well as training on using bean bag guns for Mellone.
After the Examiner reported on the findings Tuesday, Gongora Pat’s family requested a meeting with Scott.
His office declined the request Wednesday, saying that the internal process is not yet completed and that the chief had not reached a decision.
“In order for the chief to make as impartial of a decision as possible, the chief does not meet with the involved parties, including SFPD officers,” Christine Fountain of the Police Department said in an email to the family.
Fountain said the chief will discuss the case with the DPA director after reaching a conclusion on his own.
“The case is then presented to the Police Commission with any recommendations,” Fountain continued. “If DPA and SFPD do not agree on the final disposition, then the Police Commission is tasked with making the final decision.”
The chief has agreed to meet with the family once the Police Commission has made a decision.