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San Francisco to pay $2.5 million in police killing of unarmed fleeing man

The city had previously argued that the officer reasonably believed Keita O’Neil was reaching for a gun when he put his hands near his waistband as he ran away from a stolen vehicle.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The city of San Francisco will pay $2.5 million to settle a lawsuit over a rookie police officer who shot an unarmed Black man fleeing from a stolen van in 2017, even as the former officer faces manslaughter charges in criminal court.

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 2020, 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. That case remains pending.

The settlement involves the lawsuit filed by O’Neil’s mother, Judy O’Neil, in December 2017. A settlement was reached in July, a few months before the case was scheduled to go to trial in October this year.

The $2.5 million dollar figure was revealed in a proposed ordinance added to the agenda of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Nov. 9 meeting. The Board of Supervisors must approve the settlement.

Civil rights attorney John Burris, who represents Judy O'Neil in the civil case, said the fatal shooting was devastating for the grieving mother.

“She’s had a difficult time,” Burris said. “It was traumatizing to her.”

Judy O’Neil’s sister, April Green, was appointed as O’Neil’s guardian in the lawsuit after a medical crisis left her physically and mentally compromised, according to a motion filed in the case in October 2019.

On the day of his deadly encounter with police, Keita 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.

In defending itself against the lawsuit, San Francisco had argued that Samayoa should be entitled to qualified immunity because he reasonably feared the unarmed O’Neil was reaching for a gun as he ran in his direction. In July, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero found a jury was better suited to resolve the factual dispute of whether Samayoa acted reasonably or used excessive force when he fired his gun.

The judge wrote that 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.

Burris, the civil rights lawyer, called the city's argument "spurious,” noting that his client was unarmed and fleeing the scene when he was fatally shot.

“What you see is a young man running to get away,” Burris said. “He wasn’t running at an officer. He didn’t have a weapon or anything. He was running by, and the officer then shoots him.”

Judy O’Neil also sued Talusan, claiming he failing to intervene when his trainee 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.

Burris said he believes Samayoa should have been charged with the more serious crime of murder instead of manslaughter, but he understands why prosecutors believe they had a better chance of getting a conviction with the lesser charge.

“I’m certain that it’s easier to prove manslaughter than it is murder if you want to give the officer some benefit, to say he had a good faith belief,” Burris said. “It was just unreasonable. There was no gun. He was in a position of safety.”

Burris, who has represented police shooting victims and their families in several high-profile cases in the San Francisco Bay Area, said he hopes to see Samayoa convicted.

“It’s important to get a conviction,” Burris said. “If you want a deterrent for officer misconduct, you have to bring charges but also convict.”

The San Francisco City Attorney’s Office did not immediately return an email and voice mail requesting comment Friday.

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