SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge on Thursday refused to rule out making San Francisco’s former police chief testify in a wrongful death suit that accuses the police department of breeding a culture of racial bias and excessive force.
During a court hearing Thursday, U.S. District Judge William Orrick said former San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr’s testimony could be relevant to municipal liability claims in a lawsuit over the fatal 2015 police shooting of Mario Woods.
“I’m thinking if you’ve got a solid Monell claim, then what Chief Suhr said after the fact and what he did becomes relevant to your case,” Orrick said, referring to the 1978 Supreme Court ruling, Monell v. Dept. of Social Services, which allows governments to be held liable for civil rights violations in certain circumstances.
Lawyers representing Woods’ mother had asked to grill the former police chief about officer misconduct and changes to use-of-force policy guidelines he made before and after the Woods shooting.
The changed policies show the former chief “saw a pattern in his own staff that he wanted to correct,” civil rights lawyer Adante Pointer, of the John Burris law firm, said in an interview after Thursday’s hearing.
“The chief saw the policies were running afoul of the law,” Pointer said.
But policy changes do not prove past practices were inherently flawed or unlawful, Deputy City Attorney Sean Connolly insisted in court Thursday.
“Municipalities are free to tweak their policies,” Connolly said. “That doesn’t’ mean the prior policy is defective.”
Five officers unloaded their firearms into Woods, a 26-year-old black man and stabbing suspect, in the city’s Bayview neighborhood on Dec. 2, 2015. Before he was shot, police tried to subdue the knife-wielding suspect with beanbag rounds.
Woods’ mother claims her son did not pose a threat to the officers and that his hands were by his side when they shot him. The city holds the shooting was justified because Woods refused to disarm and surrender peacefully, and because less lethal bean bag rounds failed to stop him.
Nine days after the Woods shooting, Suhr issued a directive that made pointing a gun at a person a “use of force” incident that requires officers to report the episode to a supervisor and justify their actions in writing.
In February 2016, the department unveiled new training guidelines that require recruits to shoot only two rounds at a time, then stop to reassess.
Orrick declined to compel Suhr’s testimony at this time, finding the plaintiffs have not yet articulated the specifics of their Monell claim or how Suhr’s testimony would relate to it. The judge also found that other high-ranking officers can testify on why use-of-force policies were changed.
“If it’s necessary to take Chief Suhr after the discovery period is over because you’ve made your case and there’s sufficient reason to do it, I’ll find good cause to do that if it’s appropriate,” Orrick said.
One day after the fatal shooting, Suhr suggested during a Bayview neighborhood community meeting that the shooting was justified because Woods lunged at an officer. But videos of the incident do not show Woods raising his arm or lunging.
Orrick said the former chief’s public comments are not relevant, but what other officers told him about the shooting could be.
“The only question is if the defendants themselves made some omissions to the chief or said things they are now taking an inconsistent view on,” Orrick said.
Suhr resigned in May 2016 after police fatally shot a 29-year-old woman fleeing in a stolen vehicle.
On Thursday, the judge also ordered the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office to turn over all non-privileged investigative files, including witness interviews, crime scene photos and videos. However, Orrick denied the plaintiffs’ request to make San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón testify.
Last month, Gascón ‘s office declined to press charges on the five police officers who shot Woods. An autopsy report revealed that Woods, who was suspected of stabbing a man earlier in the day, had THC and methamphetamine in his system when he died.
Woods’ mother, Gwendolyn Woods, is the sole plaintiff in the lawsuit against the city of San Francisco and five officers. She lists five causes of action in her second amended complaint, including wrongful death, battery, municipal liability and civil rights violations.
Woods’ lawyers also cite the police department’s racist texting scandal and fatal police shootings of other people of color to support their claim that San Francisco had a pattern and practice of racial bias and excessive force.
San Francisco City Attorney’s Office spokesman John Coté dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims as “baseless and transparent attempts” to distract from the “real issues in this litigation.”
Coté said in an email that the “real issue” is “whether officers acted lawfully when they prevented an individual armed with a knife, under the influence of methamphetamine, who was a suspect in a stabbing, from escaping and causing further harm to others.”
“There is no evidence of a proven practice of bias or excessive force,” Coté said. “The San Francisco Police Department is one of the most diverse, progressive, and professional big city police departments in the country. Its policies have long been the standard that other agencies have copied. They are modeled on constitutional precedent. Any claim to the contrary is specious.”
Witness depositions are to be completed by the end of July, and a jury trial is scheduled to start on Nov. 5.