SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A police sergeant that shot and killed a woman fleeing in stolen car will not face criminal charges, the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office said Wednesday.
The fatal shooting of Jessica Williams, 29, in May 2016 spurred the resignation of former San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr, who faced mounting pressure to step down after a string of deadly police shootings and a scandal involving racist text messages.
Police Sgt. Justin Erb said he feared for his life when he fired one fatal shot at Williams, who was driving a stolen Honda Accord in his general direction but not directly at him, according to the DA’s Independent Investigations Bureau report released Wednesday.
“All of the available evidence suggests Sgt. Erb faced a volatile and unpredictable situation looking uphill at an approaching car when he fired his gun at Williams,” the DA’s office said in a statement.
Erb and officer Eric Eastlund were in uniform when they approached the parked Honda Accord, identified as stolen, on Helena Street at about 9:40 a.m. on May 19, 2016. When they knocked on the car door’s window, Williams reportedly sat up, started the car and sped off before crashing into a parked utility truck about 75 feet away. When the officers followed, Williams put the car in reverse, according to the report.
Erb said he felt “pinned in” with a fence behind him and a truck to his left as Williams started driving the car forward after the crash. A firearms expert found Erb was 15 to 16.5 feet away when he fired his weapon.
A photo produced by an accident reconstruction expert places Erb in front of and to the left of the vehicle when Williams was shot. Investigators found that because Erb was within the 18.2-foot turning radius of the vehicle, he likely faced an imminent threat.
Because Erb had no duty to retreat under California law, “questions about whether he could have run out of the oncoming Accord’s path and found adequate cover do not alter the criminal legal analysis,” according to the report.
Erb told investigators that he feared for his life when he fired his weapon.
A witness who was babysitting nearby and watching from a window saw the car reverse and move forward in Erb’s direction. The witness said she thought the driver “wanted to run the cop over.”
Despite the evidence supporting Erb’s version of events, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi criticized the DA’s decision not to press charges.
“I’m flabbergasted that the DA is saying it is okay to shoot at a person who appears to have been fleeing in a car,” Adachi told the San Francisco Chronicle. “How can you justify shooting a person when you easily could have stepped out of the way?”
This is the third high-profile police shooting in which San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon’s office declined to press charges in recent years. The DA’s office also decided not to prosecute officers who shot 28-year-old Alex Nieto in March 2014 and 20-year-old Amilcar Perez-Lopez in February 2015.
The DA’s Office is still investigating the police shootings of Mario Woods in December 2015 and a 45-year-old immigrant of Mayan decent, Luis Gongora, in April 2016.
Last year San Francisco’s police union opposed new use-of-force policies that banned officers from shooting at moving vehicles unless a suspect is firing a gun from the vehicle.
Williams’ mother, Carol Walker, filed a wrongful death suit against the city in October 2016, claiming Erb was not justified in using lethal force when her daughter was simply trying to get away.
Walker’s attorney, Gregory Finch of the Signature Law Group in Sacramento, said his client believes there are other witnesses who saw the shooting but are afraid to come forward.
“Carol Walker does not believe the circumstances as presented,” Finch said. “She’s of that opinion strongly and still grieves for her daughter.”
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