SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A former rookie cop was charged with manslaughter Monday for fatally shooting a carjacking suspect in December 2017, making it the first known prosecution of an officer for deadly use of force in San Francisco history.
“For too long, we have seen the failures of our legal system to hold police accountable for the violence committed against the members of the public they are entrusted to keep safe,” San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin said in a statement Monday. “In my administration, police officers are not above the law.”
It was rookie officer Chris Samayoa’s fourth day on the job on Dec. 1, 2017, when a call came in about a man suspected of assaulting a state lottery worker and stealing her government-issued minivan in the city’s Potrero Hill neighborhood.
The suspect, 42-year-old Keita “Iggy” O’Neil, led officers on a haphazard chase from Potrero Hill to the city’s Bayview neighborhood, where O’Neil resided.
Samayoa was sitting in the passenger seat of a car driven by his training officer, Edric Talusan, who was following the van. The van rolled onto a dead-end street, where O’Neil jumped out of the vehicle and started running on foot.
With other patrol cars closing in and blocking his path, O’Neil ran past the police car where Samayoa was sitting in the passenger seat. Samayoa pointed his gun at O’Neil and shot the suspect through the passenger side window. O’Neil was taken to San Francisco General Hospital, where he was later pronounced dead. O’Neil had no weapon on him, according to Boudin’s office.
Samayoa did not turn his body camera on until after the shooting, but the incident was still captured on video because the cameras automatically record 30 seconds prior to activation. Three months after the shooting, Police Chief William “Bill” Scott fired Samayoa.
On Monday morning, Boudin told O’Neil’s family that he was charging the former officer with voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, assault with a semiautomatic firearm, assault by a police officer, and discharge of a firearm with gross negligence.
“I’m happy to hear this news, and hoping it brings some justice to our family,” O’Neil’s aunt April Green said in a statement provided by the district attorney’s office.
O’Neil’s mother, Judy O’Neil, filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of San Francisco in December 2017. That suit is still pending.
Reached by phone Monday, O’Neil’s attorney John Burris said he was “delighted” with Boudin’s decision, though he believes Samayoa could have been charged with the more serious crime of murder. He said the district attorney probably chose to go with manslaughter because it will be easier to prove in court.
“I think this is a positive trend that officers will be held accountable, and it gives more faith and confidence in the community that if officers engage in unlawful conduct — killing people unjustifiably — they can be held accountable,” Burris said.
Burris, who represented Rodney King and the family of Oscar Grant in their civil rights lawsuits against police departments, said he hopes district attorneys will start looking at other past cases, including the 2015 police shooting of Mario Woods.
When Chief Scott announced his decision to fire Samayoa in March 2018, the president of San Francisco’s police union criticized the decision. Former San Francisco Police Officers Association President Martin Halloran said Samayoa was “fired for doing what he was trained to do” in the academy, on his fourth day on the job, and under extremely stressful and difficult circumstances. Halloran called the firing a “needless action” by the police chief.
On Monday, Halloran’s successor, Tony Montoya, said Samayoa should be given a fair chance to defend himself in court.
“We are committed to ensuring that Christopher and his family are supported during this difficult time and that he is accorded his due process rights and provided with a vigorous defense against these charges,” Montoya said in an emailed statement.
Supervisor Shamann Walton, who represents the Bayview neighborhood where the shooting occurred, said he hopes this decision will show that officers can be held accountable for harming and killing people without justification.
“This prosecution is an important, historic step towards showing that Black lives matter and that unlawful police violence will not be tolerated,” Walton said in a statement.
John Crew, a retired ACLU police practices expert and longtime advocate of police reform, argued the lack of prosecutions against officers who use excessive force has undermined trust in police departments. Crew said many community members believe police officers are above the law, but Boudin’s “willingness to apply the law’s standards” to officer conduct could reverse that trend.
“Police officers are obligated to follow the law when using force — even when responding to serious crimes,” Boudin said. “As District Attorney, I will continue to hold accountable officers who inflict unlawful violence and breach the trust the public places in them.”
A warrant for Samayoa’s arrest was issued on Saturday and he is expected to surrender to the warrant later this week.