The SFPD on Monday held a virtual town hall meeting to discuss the details of the January 20 officer-involved shooting at SFO, in which a man who appeared armed with two handguns and a knife was killed by police.
We learned the day after the shooting that the man was armed with Airsoft-style, replica handguns, but arriving officers all were convinced they were real.
"Without reaching a conclusion as to the appropriateness of the use of force, I can say on behalf of myself and the entire department that we express our sincere condolences to Mr. Szeto, his family, his friends and loved ones, for the loss of life they've suffered," said SFPD Chief Bill Scott. He also acknowledged that such incidents can be triggering especially for members of the community who have suffered their own trauma from encounters with police.
Dispatch audio from that morning helps paint the picture of a fairly chaotic scene, in which multiple officers rushed to secure the area, deter BART passengers from entering the International Terminal, and shut off elevators leading to this part of the terminal. The drama began after both an airport passenger and a TSA agent called the SFPD to report a suspicious man hovering in the terminal, acting strangely. The TSA agent called the department's non-emergency line, but the passenger seems to have called 911 and reported that he had left the terminal because he was frightened of the subject.
The man, who was described as an Asian man in his 20s, turned out to be 37-year-old Nelson Waynezhi Szeto — whom the SFPD last week described as having no known home address.
The footage, played live during today's town hall meeting and subsequently available in raw form on the SFPD website, shows Szeto wearing a white face mask and a baggy jacket and pants. After an initial contact was made by an SFPD officer on a bicycle in the terminal, and after that officer observed one gun in Szeto's hand, Szeto moves to a corner of the terminal just outside the Reflection Room, near the BART station entrance.
Surveillance footage without audio shows Szeto pacing in this area, and at one point putting down a knife that he held in one hand and removing a second pistol from his jacket. This all occurred while officers kept their distance, taking cover behind nearby walls anticipating a possible shootout.
Szeto behaves relatively calmly throughout the incident, pacing, and stepping forward and back. While officers described him "advancing" toward them, this advance is never clearly depicted — though what is clear from the footage is that Szeto failed to comply with any of the demands by a San Mateo County Sheriff's Department negotiator, or officers with lethal and non-lethal weapons trained on him.
Szeto also made comments to officers about how the "hospital cannot help him," and he appeared engaged in an act of "suicide by cop" — instructing the officers in how they should shoot him, and taunting them by saying "this one's loaded" about his second gun, which turned out to be a toy.
Body camera footage helps to better describe the scene, and the incident which unfolds over the course of about 1o to 15 minutes.
At one point, Szeto is heard telling the negotiator that he has something in his throat. The negotiator, addressing him as Nelson, repeats "If there's something in your throat, we can help you, just put the weapons down."
At another point, minutes later, after apparently stepping toward officers and then stepping back, and kneeling down to drop one gun to the ground, the negotiator praises Szeto and encourages him just to repeat that motion and drop the second weapon.
The shooting occurred moments after one officer fired a non-lethal shot at Szeto — and it's unclear from the footage if he was hit. The officer who fired can be heard threatening to hit Szeto "again" if he fails to drop the weapon.
Repeatedly, this officer and others can be heard screaming "red line" or "red light" as the situation escalates.
The critical moment, which is difficult to watch, appears to come after Szeto was already on the ground, after being hit in the leg with a foam baton round. With one of the guns still in his hand, Szeto appears to rise up from the ground, and that appears to be when lethal rounds were fired. It's not clear if a lethal round was already fired prior to this.
Multiple shots are ultimately fired, and officers moved in to administer medical aid. One officer can heard yelling "Cuff him!", and as officers look to secure the apparent weapons, another says, "Don't cuff him right now."
The initial report from airport officials that morning indicated that Szeto was still alive, but he ended up dying from his injuries.
Other bodyworn camera footage shows officers approaching the bystander who was hit by a bullet in his leg. That bystander was possibly the same person described in the dispatch audio as having been sleeping in the Reflection Room prior to the incident.
What brought him to the airport, or what he was expecting to accomplish is not clear — but a mass shooting was not ever an actual threat with replica handguns. Mental illness, or some desire to have a confrontation with police, both could be factors.
People will now debate whether Szeto should have been seen as an actual threat — and officers say the handguns looked very real, and orange tips that usually indicate Airsoft guns had been removed or painted over. And the California Department of Justice is conducting an investigation.
As the Chronicle noted on the public comment period of the meeting, multiple callers criticized police for escalating rather than de-escalating at various points. Other caller praised police for their actions.
The footage from the town hall meeting is below.