Tensions are rising and a loud debate is brewing in San Francisco after the latest example of arguable overuse of force by local law enforcement. This time, the fatal officer-involved shooting of 26-year-old Mario Woods occurred Wednesday in the Bayview neighborhood and was witnessed by many civilians and recorded by at least three nearby cellphone cameras. Woods was implicated in a stabbing earlier that day, had a history of jail time and gang involvement, and as the Chronicle now reports, he was shot "about fifteen times" by "at least five officers" as he appeared to just be walking away with "a 6- to 8-inch kitchen knife" he refused to drop.
The violent, and many say unjustified shooting follows quickly on the national headlines made by the 2014 police shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, the video of which was just released last week, and occurs the same week that the SF Police Commission voted on rules governing whether officers should be allowed to view body cam footage before giving statements after such shootings. SF Mag's Joe Eskanazi was quick to enter the debate Thursday asking whether Mario Woods' death would have occurred if officers were already outfitted with those body cameras, as they will be next year. "Or," he asked, "would they have just recorded the slaying from more angles?"
Woods' death at the hands of police is the first in San Francisco in over a year likely to spur heated debate and protest. The last was the 2014 killing of City College student Alex Nieto, who turned out to be unarmed. The officer-involved shooting of Amilcar Perez-Lopez in February 2015 sparked some anger, and in June the UK Guardian reported in depth on witnesses who dispute the SFPD's account of his death.*
Police Chief Greg Suhr has held firm to the assertion that his officers were justified in their actions, but the multiple angles of video caught by witnesses is fueling outrage over the incident, beginning with a vigil and protest last night in the Bayview neighborhood.
As CBS 5 reports, Woods' mother, Gwendolyn Woods, attended and spoke at the vigil, calling her son's killing an execution. "He wasn’t that monster that you’re going to hear on the news." Woods admits to the Examiner that her son was "struggling with a lot of issues" in the four months since he got out of prison for a 2008 robbery. But, she says, he had just gotten a job with UPS and had just picked up his uniform.
The incident began after 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at Third Street and Bayshore Boulevard, where officers spotted Mario Woods on the street following a report of a stabbing victim at SF General about forty minutes earlier, who named Woods as his attacker he was being treated for a stab wound to the shoulder. According to statement issued by the SFPD early the next morning, officers fired non-lethal bean bags at Woods multiple times and issued "numerous verbal commands ordering the suspect to drop the knife." Woods refused, and in the video you can see him still standing and limping a bit as he tries to move away from the gathering of some eight or ten officers aiming guns at him, towards another officer who steps into his path the SFPD says that officer was trying to prevent him from fleeing, and that he "moved towards that officer." It's unclear in the videos whether Woods has anything in his hand, but even if he was refusing the drop the weapon, for whatever reason, he does not appear to pose much of a threat to the officers who have him well surrounded, and the debate as to whether deadly force was necessary is likely to continue for months to come.
Public Defender Jeff Adachi spoke to the Chron Thursday saying, "What I think San Franciscans want to see, particularly when you’re talking about the use of deadly force, is that it’s a last resort. Based on what we see in this video, it does not look like the officers who fired the fatal shots were in immediate danger of being killed and that there were other alternatives that could have been taken."
Suhr, meanwhile, says, "This is all they could do. I really don’t know how much more you can make it plain to a wanted felon that he should drop the knife.”
Says Mayor Lee, "I’ve seen the video too I’ve already spoken to the chief. There will be a thorough and transparent investigation without delay. We will make sure the community knows all the details about this."
Below, a third video has emerged via ABC 7 that shows, from a distance, that it appears multiple rounds continued to be fired into Woods after he was already on the ground.
The ACLU of Northern California has issued a statement as well, saying, "Video of the incident, which reveals Woods trying to walk away from the officers, does not appear to show the imminent danger or substantial risk of death or serious injury that would permit the use of a firearm under SFPD policy. The video also raises questions about the officers’ decision-making and actions prior to use of the firearm and whether proper de-escalation tactics were employed."
They add, "If the SFPD finds the shooting justified, the public deserves to know exactly why, so it can understand whether the policies on use of force match the public’s expectations and whether the process for investigation and accountability is working. If the SFPD finds the shooting not justified, the public deserves to know how the SFPD will ensure that this doesn't happen again."
Again, below, if you somehow missed it, is the original video that has the closest angle of the moments just before the shooting, though the camera pans away just as shots are fired.
* This post has been corrected to show that Alex Nieto's death was not the last to be disputed as an improper or unnecessary use of force by the SFPD.