San Francisco Police Shooting Suit Likely Headed for Trial

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Claims that San Francisco police officers used excessive force when they unloaded 21 bullets into Mario Woods, a 26-year-old black man, in 2015 will likely go to trial, a federal judge indicated Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge William Orrick III said he will likely deny the bulk of San Francisco’s motion for judgment, meaning the case will go to trial in April.

After the court hearing, a civil rights lawyer representing Woods’ mother, Gwendolyn Woods, said a fifth video of the shooting has emerged that shows Woods did not pose a threat to the officers.

Civil rights attorney John Burris speaks with reporters outside the federal courthouse in San Francisco following a hearing in a lawsuit over the fatal police shooting of Mario Woods. [photo credit: CNS/Nicholas Iovino]
Attorney John Burris declined to specify the damages his client is seeking from the city. But considering Woods’ young age and the profound grief inflicted on his mother, “the damages should be substantial,” Burris said.

Attorneys for the city of San Francisco had asked Orrick to rule in their favor without trial, arguing the five officers who shot Woods are entitled to qualified immunity because they acted reasonably in the face of an imminent threat.

“It’s entirely reasonable for officers to believe that he is a risk to them,” Cheryl Adams, a lawyer representing the city, said at the hearing.

Woods was holding a knife when five officers fired at least 21 bullets into his body in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood on Dec. 2, 2015.

Woods’ mother says her son’s hands were at his side, and that he did not pose a threat. The city counters the shooting was justified because Woods refused to disarm and surrender peacefully, and because less lethal beanbag rounds and pepper spray failed to subdue him.

An autopsy revealed that Woods, who was accused of stabbing a man earlier that day, had THC and methamphetamine in his system when he died. Lawyers for Woods’ mother describe him as being “confused” and in a state of “mental crisis.” They say officers should have used de-escalation tactics, “including not yelling frenzied orders but identifying a sole point of contact to talk the person down.”

Woods reportedly said, “you’re going to have to squeeze that thing,” and “fuck you, come get it” to officers before he was shot,  according to officer and witness testimony cited in the city’s motion for summary judgment.

But Judge Orrick concluded that a jury could look at videos of the shooting and find that officers did not act reasonably when they fired dozens of live rounds.

“The videos also show it seems to me that when he starts walking towards Officer [Charles] August, he’s walking,” Orrick said. “He’s not threatening in any way.”

Orrick also questioned whether firing so many bullets was necessary.

Adams replied that the number of rounds fired is irrelevant because the law permits officers to use deadly force until they perceive a threat as neutralized.

Attorneys for Woods’ mother branded the result a victory, but Orrick did not advance all of the plaintiff’s claims.

The judge said he will likely rule in favor of the city on certain municipal liability claims that would have allowed the plaintiffs to present evidence of a pattern of civil rights violations in the San Francisco Police Department.

Patrick Buelna, another lawyer representing Woods, insisted that the police department’s use-of-force policies and instructions from supervisors remain relevant to the case. Orrick agreed, but said he was unlikely to admit evidence of similar incidents in which San Francisco police have shot and killed young men of color.

Orrick also gave the city 60 days to turn over records of police interviews from San Francisco’s police watchdog agency, the Department of Police Accountability, which is still investigating the 2015 shooting.

After the hearing, Burris said he was pleased with the outcome, adding that the city of San Francisco remains liable for negligence and wrongful death claims, and that “the essence of the case is still in place.”

A jury trial is scheduled to start on April 1, 2019.

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