San Francisco Officers Off the Hook in High-Profile Shootings

(CN) – San Francisco won’t charge the officers who killed two men of color in separate high-profile police shootings because the officers may have been defending themselves and the public.

District Attorney George Gascon today cleared the officers who shot and killed Mario Woods in 2015 and Luis Gongora in 2016. The killings pushed the city’s police department to adopt new use-of-force guidelines and prompted its police chief to resign.

Gascon said the notion that the officers could or should have used non-lethal force didn’t factor into his decision.

“Use of force cases can only be charged if we can prove that it was unreasonable for the officer to be in fear for their life or someone else’s,” said Gascon in a statement.  “Whether or not the officer could have used another tactic such as non-lethal force, or simply waiting, is not a factor we can even consider under current law.”

According to the city’s investigations, both Woods, a 26-year-old black man, and Gongora, a 45-year-old Mexican immigrant, carried knives. After brief encounters, officers fired 26 shots at Woods and seven at Gongora. Bystanders or nearby surveillance filmed parts of both incidents, with some witnesses disputing the police’s version of the shootings.

Five officers shot Woods – who reportedly stabbed a man earlier that same day – after firing beanbag rounds in an attempt to subdue him.

Former Police Chief Greg Suhr said at the time that Woods had lunged at an officer and refused to drop his weapon before he was shot, but cellphone videos don’t confirm this version of events.

Gascon concluded that the five officers “acted in accordance with their training and nationally recognized norms” and therefore he couldn’t charge the officers with murder or involuntary manslaughter.

Police killed Gongora within 30 seconds of approaching him on April 7, 2015. At least one officer involved had special training to de-escalate situations with mentally ill people, and officers also fired beanbag rounds at Gongora before employing deadly force.

“Rather than comply, Gongora rose to his feet and moved approximately 23 feet toward Sergeant Steger with the knife in hand. Sergeant Steger and Officer Mellone fired a total of seven gunshots, fatally wounding Gongora,” Gascon said in the report on Gongora’s shooting.

Officers claim Gongora got up after being hit with beanbags and approached them with his knife.

“Given this evidence, we cannot meet the burden of showing beyond a reasonable doubt the officers’ belief that they needed to defend themselves was unreasonable and that they were unjustified in shooting Gongora,” Gascon said.

The district attorney expressed support for more restrictive use-of-force guidelines, saying “we can do better.” He urged lawmakers to pass Assembly Bill 931, which would drastically change the state’s “reasonable force” rule.

The sweeping law enforcement reform bill would require officers to use deadly force only after considering all nonlethal alternatives. Officers who don’t follow the proposed guidelines or use nonlethal techniques before shooting could be fired or face criminal charges.

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