SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A jury must decide if a former San Francisco police officer being prosecuted for manslaughter used excessive force when he shot and killed an unarmed man fleeing from a stolen van, a federal judge ruled Monday.
It was rookie officer Chris Samayoa’s fourth day on the job on Dec. 1, 2017, when he shot and killed 42-year-old Keita “Iggy” O’Neil from the passenger seat of a squad car. O’Neil had jumped out of a stolen California State Lottery minivan and tried to run away in Samayoa’s direction when other patrol cars blocked his path.
In November last year, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a former public defender who ran on a progressive platform vowing to hold police accountable for misconduct, charged Samayoa with manslaughter.
In a separate civil lawsuit filed by O’Neil’s mother, Judy O’Neil, the city of San Francisco argued that Samayoa is entitled to qualified immunity because he reasonably suspected O’Neil was reaching for a gun when he put his hands near his waistband as he ran in the officer’s direction.
In a 43-page ruling issued Monday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero concluded that a jury is better suited to decide if Samayoa acted reasonably or used excessive force when he shot and killed O’Neil.
“A jury could conclude that O’Neil did not ‘reach’ for his waistband, that his hands were in the vicinity of his waist only as part of a natural running motion, and that any reasonable officer in Samayoa’s position would have recognized that O’Neil was merely trying to run away,” Spero wrote.
Spero also denied Judy O’Neil’s motion for summary judgment on her claim of excessive force against Samayoa.
The judge said neither surveillance camera footage nor video from Samayoa’s body camera offered a clear picture of what O’Neil did with his hands as he darted from the stolen van. Samayoa’s training officer and co-defendant, Edric Talusan, testified that he saw O’Neil’s hands near his waistband but did not say if it looked as though O’Neil was reaching for a gun.
“The court cannot say with certainty that no reasonable jury could deduce from that footage, in conjunction with Talusan’s deposition testimony, that O’Neil more likely than not reached towards his waistband in a manner that a reasonable officer in Samayoa’s position would perceive as a threat,” Spero wrote.
On Judy O’Neill’s claim that her son’s Fourteenth Amendment due process rights were denied, the judge ruled in favor of the city. To prevail on that claim, a plaintiff must show there was an abuse of power that would shock the conscience. In this case, the judge found Samayoa had only a split second to decide whether to shoot O’Neil or give chase on foot. That means the evidence does not support a claim for deliberate indifference because the officer had inadequate time to deliberate before firing the bullet, Judge Spero concluded.
The judge also denied the city’s motion for summary judgment on claims of negligence and state law violations, but he ruled in favor of the city on claims that the alleged violations stemmed from an official police department policy or custom. Judy O’Neil did not oppose the city’s motion for summary judgment on that claim.
O’Neil also sued Samayoa’s training officer, Edric Talusan, for failing to intervene when his partner allegedly used excessive force on her son.
Spero ruled in favor of the city on those claims, finding no evidence that Talusan “would be required to intervene to prevent Samayoa from shooting, when Talusan did not know either whether Samayoa would shoot or if O’Neil might take action that would justify deadly force.”
Following a review by the city’s police watchdog agency, the police department found Talusan failed to adequately supervise his trainee Samayoa and demoted him from patrol and field training officer to inspecting commercial trucks for compliance, according to Talusan’s deposition.
Spero also granted the city’s request to keep a Department of Police Accountability report on the shooting confidential while a criminal case is pending, citing its potential to “prejudice the jury pool” in Samayoa’s criminal trial.
However, the judge denied the city’s request to keep other evidence — including a dispatch log, dispatch call audio recording and another officer’s body camera footage of the incident — under seal. The city must file those pieces of evidence publicly with the court by July 22.
Additionally, the judge ruled the bulk of the city’s expert witness opinion by Michael Pickett inadmissible. The former parole officer, jail guard and prison administrator opined that O’Neil was a “career criminal with a long history of narcotic, weapons and violent behavior.” The judge found Pickett, who has not worked as a parole officer since 1978, was unqualified to offer those opinions and failed to explain what “method” he used to reach his conclusions.
On the day of his deadly encounter with police, O’Neil had been suspected of assaulting a state lottery worker and stealing her government-issued minivan in the city’s Potrero Hill neighborhood. He then led officers on a haphazard chase to the city’s Bayview neighborhood, where he resided, before ending up surrounded by patrol cars on a dead end street.
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.
O’Neil’s attorney, John Burris, and the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office did not immediately return emails and phone calls requesting comment Monday evening.
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