SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A 21-year-old carjacking suspect sprinted at two San Francisco police officers with a knife in his hand when they shot and killed him, according to body camera footage released Monday, but many community members believe the shooting was unjustified.
“Sadly, this incident resulted in a tragic outcome — the loss of life Mr. Cesar Antonio Vargas,” San Francisco Police Chief William “Bill” Scott said during a virtual community meeting Monday. “Our deepest condolences go to Mr. Vargas’s family and his friends for their loss.”
Responding to reports of a mixed-race carjacking suspect wearing glasses, a grey hooded sweatshirt, dark pants, black shoes and holding a knife, SFPD officers Kyle Roach and Nicholas Delgado caught up with Vargas and chased him to Otis and Gough Street at around 11:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 10.
Body camera footage shows the officers yelling “Get on the ground right now,” “Let me see your hands,” “Drop it,” “Put the knife down,” and “Get back.” Vargas reportedly replied “Bitch, I’ll kill ya” followed by a racial slur, though that was not fully audible in video footage.
Vargas then sprinted toward one of the officers. Both fired at least four bullets at Vargas before he fell to the ground, slowly lifted his head and went limp. After a few minutes of yelling at Vargas to show his hands, the officers got a shield so they could safely approach him, then handcuffed him, flipped him over and started performing CPR after finding he had no pulse. Vargas was pronounced dead at the scene, according to police.
After hearing 911 calls and seeing video footage of the shooting and events leading up to it, several community members called into the virtual forum to express their views.
The first caller, who did not give a name, thanked police officers for supporting the community and keeping people safe.
“I can never imagine what it would be like to have someone run at you with a knife,” the caller said. “It’s very scary. Everyone is going to try and place judgment and say this is a racial issue when this is not a racial issue. This is a clear thing.”
Most other callers saw things differently. Adriana Camarena of the group Justice for Luis Góngora Pat, named after a man shot and killed by San Francisco police in 2016, said she saw no attempts by officers to cool down the situation and prevent the deadly result.
“Did these officers make a plan to de-escalate because I didn’t see any,” Camarena said.
A caller who identified herself as Angelina said she found it disturbing to hear people supporting the police for “murdering a person who was carrying the smallest baby knife I’ve ever seen.”
She was also distressed by hearing officers yell at Vargas to put his hands up after they shot him down, she said.
“Why were no rubber bullets used or rock salt,” another caller asked. “Why was more than one shot necessary?”
Several callers noted that the officers used a shield to approach Vargas after they shot him but made no attempt to get shields before the shooting.
“Imagine if he had run into a wall of shields,” one caller said. “He might be alive today.”
Several callers also criticized Chief Scott for refusing to answer questions during the community listening session.
Before Vargas encountered the police on Oct. 10, he was seen opening and shutting the door of a stopped car at Valencia and Market Streets at around 11:25 p.m. He then hopped on the hood, windshield and roof of a different car — a Toyota Prius driven by an unnamed woman. He reportedly yelled “kill me bitch” or words to that effect as he jumped on the car, causing the windshield to shatter and glass to fall on the victim.
That scene was caught on a security camera from a distance without audio. Vargas reportedly said “Bitch, get out the car” and held a knife to the woman’s face. The woman said, “Take whatever you want. Just don’t hurt me.” Vargas replied, “I don’t need anything. I don’t want anything,” according to police.
Security video shows the woman opening her car door before Vargas pulled her out of the vehicle. Vargas then hopped into the driver’s seat for a few seconds before exiting the car as it continued to roll down the street, eventually stopping near a sidewalk.
Vargas then ran away as an unidentified male witness followed him and updated a 911 dispatcher on the suspect’s whereabouts.
He then attempted to open the doors of other occupied vehicles and shoved a man who had just gotten off a city bus at Market and Gough Streets. Camera footage showed Vargas holding a four-inch knife in his right hand as he shoved the bus passenger with his left hand.
Vargas then reportedly ran toward a woman who had just walked across the street to her parked car and opened the door to step inside. The male witness who was following Vargas yelled, “stay away from her” and “ma’am shut your door,” while on the phone with 911, according to audio of the phone call released Monday. A 911 dispatcher asked the man to stop following Vargas.
Many callers said it is clear from the video and audio released Monday that Vargas was experiencing a mental health crisis or having a problem related to drugs. Some called for defunding the police and investing more resources in mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Not everyone shared that view. One caller, who did not give his name but said he has lived in San Francisco for 55 years, said he has been a victim of crime and believes it’s important to have officers to protect the community.
“I’m in great appreciation for the officers who not only thwarted any loss of life that could have happened, but I hope we can have a better relationship with the community and just remember that if it happened to you, you’d also be asking for assistance.”
Chief Scott thanked community members for calling in to express their views and said the department takes their comments to heart.
“We’re a department that’s always striving to improve and get better, and I’m sure like in every incident, we will learn lessons from this one,” Scott said.
This was the first fatal police shooting in San Francisco since March 2018 when officers shot and killed 21-year-old Jehad Eid inside a barbershop on Geneva Avenue. A lawsuit was filed over that shooting, but the case was voluntarily dismissed this past January.
Last year, San Francisco paid $400,000 to settle a lawsuit over the December 2015 shooting of Mario Woods, a 26-year-old black man whose death prompted a federal review of the police department and major policy changes, including new training that directs officers to shoot twice and stop. That may be why only four gunshots were heard in videos of the Vargas shooting.