(warning-this post contains some very painful videos). April 7, 2017 marked one year since SFPD murdered Luis Gongora Pat, an unhoused Mayan immigrant. SFPD rolled up and shot him dead within 28 seconds of arriving on the scene.
On April 7, 2017 Luis’ family and supporters, the Justice & Honor for Luis Góngora Pat Coalition, gathered at the site he was killed, 19th and Shotwell in the Mission, and marched to the Mission Police Station and to City Hall to demand accountability, stopping to dance and perform rituals in his memory.
"28 Seconds" opened the press conference for Police Terror in the Sanctuary City, the one year anniversary protest march in Luis’ memory. It was directed by choreographer/cultural activist pearl ubuñgen in collaboration with Luis Gongora Pat. The inspiration /idea originated with Jose Gongora Pat's desire to re-enact his brother's killing by SFPD. pearl ubuñgen worked closely with Jose to tell the story of Luis' journey from Teabo, Yucatan to San Francisco and his life as a Mayan living in the diaspora. This performance was created to honor the one year anniversary of this brutal killing by SFPD. The score and live accompaniment was provided by composer/percussionist Randy Odell.
The civil trial of the officers who killed Luis has been scheduled for October 2018. But District Attorney George Gascon has yet to announce whether he will indict Luis’ killers criminally.
Luis is one of 11 investigations of SFPD fatal officer involved shootings dating to September 2014 in which Gascon has not yet issued a decision to indict.
SFPD’s Long Legacy of Impunity
SFPD has a long history of being one of the most brutal and least accountable police departments in the United States. California has some of the strongest legal protections of police in the country. Correctional workers unions and police unions statewide are allied into a formidable political force that has resulted in the building of 22 prisons- and only 1 university- since 1980. Last year, California State Senator Mark Leno attempted to open the California Peace Officer Bill of Rights a tiny crack, and his effort was crushed by the unions. The San Francisco Police Officers Association collects approximately $8 million per year in dues from SFPD officers to buy the silence of public officials and pay for the best legal representation for officers in trouble.
The result: countless reform efforts have resulted in little change. In October 2016, Judge LaDoris Cordell, former Independent Police Auditor of the San Jose Police Department, implored the SF Board of Supervisors to rein in SFPD and recounted the long history of thwarted reform efforts:
Luis was the 17th person killed by SFPD since Greg Suhr succeeded George Gascon as Chief of SFPD and George Gascon became District Attorney in 2011. Not a single SFPD officer involved in any of these killings has been charged criminally, and it is unclear how many of the officers involved in these shootings remain working for SFPD. They cannot be disciplined by the Police Commission until DA Gascon issues charging decisions. And if patterns hold, only 10% of the shootings will result in the officers being disciplined.
George Gascon, SF District Attorney
In May 2016, the SF Chronicle analyzed 95 SFPD officer involved shootings- 40 of them fatal-since 2000 and found: “While no officer-involved shootings have resulted in criminal charges in San Francisco since 2000, police have determined four of those shootings to be in violation of department policy (excluding suicides and accidental discharges). At least two of those involved officers firing a gun at a moving vehicle, a practice discouraged by federal guidelines and restricted by some police departments.”
The Recent History of the SF District Attorney’s Office
In November 2010, Kamala Harris, who had served as District Attorney of San Francisco since 2004, was elected Attorney General of California. In January 2011 Gavin Newsom appointed George Gascon, who was then serving as Chief of SFPD, to be District Attorney of San Francisco to fill the last year of Kamala Harris’ term. The people of San Francisco elected George Gascon to serve as District Attorney in November 2011 and again in November 2015.
Mayor Ed Lee appointed Greg Suhr Chief of SFPD on April 26, 2011. He was a thirty year veteran of the Department and although he had been implicated in scandals, he had the backing of Kamala Harris, the San Francisco Police Officers Association, and influential community leader Rose Pak.
Under Greg Suhr’s leadership, SFPD killed 18 people, including Alex Nieto, shot while relaxing before work in Bernal Hill Park because some newcomers to San Francisco racially profiled him for wearing a red 49ers jacket. The SFPD who shot at Alex 59 times were found not to have used excessive force.
In 2015 alone, SFPD killed 6 people, and San Francisco ranked 8th nationally in per capita fatal officer involved shootings.
On December 2, 2015, six SFPD officers surrounded Mario Woods and executed him by firing squad, in a scene reminiscent of the Spanish Civil War. Mario’s execution was witnessed by dozens of people, including a bus full of children on their way home from school. Videos went viral and activists engaged, demanding accountability.
At the time Luis was killed, SFPD was being reviewed by the US Department of Justice COPS office and a Blue Ribbon Panel of retired judges appointed by George Gascon. It is a sign of SFPD’s arrogance and culture of impunity that officers would act so quickly and violently to extinguish Luis’ life even while the department was under such scrutiny.
Luis Gongora Pat’s Death Results in Outcry
After Luis’ death, local officials and activists asked California Attorney General Kamala Harris to conduct a pattern and practice investigation of SFPD. She demurred, saying her office would become involved if SFPD resisted implementation of US Department of Justice recommendations, knowing full well that those recommendations would come after her election to the Senate.
On April 21, 2016, activists launched a hunger strike demanding Mayor Lee fire Chief Suhr. They spent 17 days in front of the Mission Police Station, where Luis’ killers work, demanding accountability. On May 3, 2016 a thousand people marched through the streets of San Francisco, pushing the hunger strikers in wheelchairs to City Hall to meet with the Mayor. But the Mayor and the Supervisors continued to support Chief Suhr.
It would take the execution of Jessica Nelson Williams, on May 19, 2016, to force a leadership change at SFPD. That evening, Mayor Lee asked for Greg Suhr’s resignation and appointed Toney Chaplin as acting chief. In January 2017, Mayor Lee appointed Bill Scott as Chief of SFPD.
Since Greg Suhr’s resignation, SFPD has killed only once, Nicholas McWherter, on October 14, 2016. There have been several high profile standoffs where SFPD has negotiated at length with suspects. SFPD opened fire on Sean Moore, an unarmed Black man in his home, earlier this year, wounding him.
SF District Attorney George Gascon’s Slow Investigations of SFPD Killings
In the summer of 2016, the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury issued a report, Into the Open: Opportunities for More Timely and Transparent Investigations of Fatal San Francisco Police Department Officer Involved Shootings, which documented that on average, it takes close to two years from the time of a fatal officer involved shooting to the time the District Attorney concludes an investigation and announces a decision.
The Grand Jury found that the public has a crisis in confidence in SFPD as a result of the delays and lack of transparency about officer involved shootings and made detailed recommendations for changes.
At the time the report was issued, DA Gascon had ten open investigations into SFPD killings (Mc Wherter makes 11) dating to the 23rd of September 2014 in which he had not issued a decision to charge.
All 11 of these cases remain open eight months after the Grand Jury issued its report saying the investigations need to close more quickly to restore the public’s faith in the integrity of the process. This chart from the Grand Jury Report documents the length of time between officer involved shootings and charging decisions in San Francisco. Fatal officer involved shootings are in red.
Gascon responded to the Grand Jury recommendations by requesting additional resources to staff a special unit dedicated to SFPD officer involved shooting investigations, and received $1.5 M in taxpayer money for his new unit in the fall of 2016. The staff have been hired, but still no indictments have been issued.
SFPD’s Resistance to Change
The Grand Jury recommended that instead of sequential investigations of officer involved shootings, all the various government agencies conduct their investigations simultaneously, with a citizen representative on the team, as well.
The District Attorney and SFPD began negotiating a memorandum of understanding about how to collaborate in investigations of officer involved shootings. But as of March 2017, the MOU is still in negotiation, largely due to SFPD inertia. When SFPD shot Sean Moore in January 2017, SFPD handled the investigation first, and the District Attorney’s new investigators began after SFPD finished, although the Grand Jury recommended that practice change.
Activists Demand Gascon Act
In July 2016, the Justice 4 Amilcar Perez Lopez Coalition met with DA Gascon. Amilcar, who spoke Spanish, was shot 6 times in the back by SFPD plainclothes officers who spoke only English on February 26, 2015.
DA Gascon explained that in order to indict the officers who killed Amilcar criminally, he would need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the force they used was excessive. That a reasonable officer standing in the shoes of the officers would not reasonably have perceived a need to use the amount of force used, the US Supreme Court Graham v Connor standard. DA Gascon claimed he was waiting for an expert to recreate the crime scene before making his final decision, and anticipated another 6-9 weeks. He claimed in an August 25th, 2016 interview that he was about to make an announcement in Amilcar’s case.
Months later, Gascon has not made an announcement. February 26, 2017 marked two years since Amilcar was killed, and his killers remain working for SFPD. The Justice4Amilcar Coalition has held a weekly vigil on Wednesdays in front of the Mission Police Station for over a year to keep pressure on and keep Amilcar’s memory alive.
In December 2016, DA Gascon met with the Wealth and Disparities in the Black Community- Justice 4 Mario Woods group and introduced his recently hired attorneys in the SFPD Officer Involved Shootings Unit. He claimed that it would take a year and a half to announce charging decisions in the backlog cases. Gwen Woods, mother of Mario Woods, pressed Gascon for indictments and spoke of the damage caused by his long delays in holding police accountable while acting quickly to arrest young people.
Activists have protested every Friday for 24 weeks in front of DA Gascon’s office at 850 Bryant to demand he charge all SFPD killers.
Perhaps the worst aspect of the long delays is that officers cannot be fired while the District Attorney is investigating them. For example, the officers who executed Mario in December 2015 returned to work in January 2016.
Find this situation unacceptable? Please call DA Gascon at (415) 553-1751 or e-mail email@example.com and demand he try killer officers. On Thursday April 13, 2017 the SF Human Rights Commission is holding a special hearing on bias at SFPD at 5:30 pm at City Hall Room 416. Show up and testify.
Join the Mothers on the March every Friday from noon-2 in front of DA Gascon's office at 850 Bryant. Join the various activist groups who support the families of people lost to police brutality.
With Jeff Sessions actively undermining the US Department of Justice’s mission to transform abusive, dysfunctional police departments, citizens like you and me are the only ones who are applying pressure.
We cannot allow the legacy of SFPD impunity to continue.
Karen Fleshman is a Racial Equity Trainer and Government Accountability Activist. Her mission is to build and support a community of people committed to love, learning, accountability, and action on race in America. She offers talks and workshops at companies, universities, nonprofits, and government agencies and blogs on Huffington Post and Medium. She is a co-founder of San Franciscans for Police Accountability and often testifies to the San Francisco Police Commission and Board of Supervisors. www.karenfleshman.com @fleshmankaren