No Charges: S.F. DA Closes Two Controversial Police Shooting Cases That Led to Era of Reform

4 min
The scene of the San Francisco Police shooting of Luis Góngora at 18th and Shotwell streets on April 7, 2016. (Alex Emslie/KQED News)

Updated Thursday, 4:30 p.m.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón announced Thursday his office will not file criminal charges against police officers involved in two fatal shootings that were responsible in part for forcing the resignation of former Police Chief Greg Suhr and prompting a sweeping Police Department reform effort.

In an interview Wednesday, Gascón called the SFPD shootings of Mario Woods and Luis Góngora "disturbing" and "unnecessary."

"To the Woods family and the Góngora family, there are not enough words that I can say that are going to bring their loved one back," Gascón said. "And all I can say with a tremendous amount of sorrow is that I’m very sorry. I’m very sorry that they lost a son, they lost a brother, a friend, because I don’t believe that that was necessary."

But Gascón said the legal standard for criminally charging police officers for on-duty use of force makes it impossible to file charges in either case. He said changing that legal standard would likely prevent similar shootings.

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Gascón is the only California district attorney in support of AB 931, pending legislation that would change the legal standard for police use of deadly force from "reasonable" to "necessary."

"The law should be changed, but the law does not in and of itself prevent these prosecutions from taking place," civil rights attorney Adante Pointer said Thursday after Gascón's charging decision was made public. "We don’t think that it was reasonable to fire 21 shots at Mario Woods or seven shots at Luis Góngora Pat. That’s unreasonable."

Here are summaries of the Woods and Góngora cases and the district attorney's findings:

Mario Woods

Bystander video captured the death of Mario Woods on the afternoon of Dec. 2, 2015, from multiple angles. By evening, videos were spreading online and sending a shudder through city leadership that would spawn a federal review of the Police Department and a complete rewriting of its rules governing officers' use of force.

According to the district attorney's account released Thursday, two officers patrolling the city's Bayview neighborhood on that Wednesday afternoon were on the lookout for a man suspected of stabbing another man during a street confrontation. They spotted Woods, who police said matched witnesses' description of the suspect, near a bus stop just off Third Street.

"Officer [Charles] August made initial contact with Woods, who immediately brandished a knife and started walking away," the report says. "Officer August reported that he repeatedly told Woods to drop the knife, and Woods was 'yellin' back' at him: 'You're gonna have to fuckin' shoot me.' "


Officer Brandon Thompson broadcast on police radio that Woods had a knife and was "coming at my partner." He requested backup and for officers to bring a "less lethal" weapon that fires beanbag rounds.

Approximately nine officers with guns drawn formed a semicircle around Woods as he backed up against a building on Keith Street, just off Third Street.

Officers fired six impact rounds at Woods and pepper-sprayed him, the report says, but neither measure had much effect and Woods continued to hold a 4.5-inch serrated knife.

Dispatch recordings captured some of the discussion of the incident in real time. A supervisor, Sgt. Hugh Hall, ordered officers to fire impact rounds at Woods.

"Sgt. Hall then said, 'Time and distance, time and distance,'" according to the district attorney's report -- a reference to an SFPD policy dating back to 2013 that encourages officers to wait out people armed with an edged weapon who may not be a danger to anyone but themselves.

"Officer Thompson reported that [the impact rounds] had been deployed four times but Woods was 'refusing to drop the knife,'" the report says.

When Woods started to walk north toward a group of bystanders, "the standoff escalated," the report says. August walked backward and into Woods' path.

"Officer August stated he believed Woods posed a potential danger to the civilians and might take one as a hostage," the report says. "According to August, Woods never raised his voice, but kept repeating, 'You're gonna have to shoot me.'"

August fired five times. "Officer August did not believe he could have done anything differently," the report says.

In the days following the shooting, former Police Chief Greg Suhr said at a town hall meeting that the bystander video showed Woods raise the knife and lunge at an officer. A KQED analysis of the video indicated that Woods' hand did not raise until after he was shot and began to fall backward.

Gascón said Suhr's statements did not negatively impact his office's investigation.

"Obviously that was inaccurate," Gascón said. "It didn't impact our investigation one way or another, but I think it impacted the community's view of the credibility of the police chief at the time."

Four officers besides August opened fire during the incident. All told, police fired 26 rounds at Woods, who was hit 20 times, according to an autopsy.

The district attorney's report says investigators with the DA's Independent Investigations Bureau were unable to identify every officer who was on the scene "because most SFPD officers we contacted refused to cooperate with IIB's investigation." The DA's bureau has been poised for over a year to take a lead role in police shooting cases, which are currently led by the Police Department's homicide division, but the final agreement on that change has stalled in negotiations with the officers union.

Several of the officers referenced "the 21-foot rule" as a reason they fired when Woods got too close to August. That's based on a belief that an adult male armed with a knife can cover about 21 feet in the time it takes an officer to draw a gun and fire. SFPD does not teach the theory as a "rule," but does generally instruct officers that suspects armed with knives can cover a lot of distance in a short time, according to the district attorney's report.

Attorney Adante Pointer, who represents Mario Woods' mother, said Woods didn't say any of the things he's quoted as saying in the district attorney's report.

"Mario Woods never threatened a single officer on that scene by saying anything," Pointer said. "He didn’t make any suicidal statements to them, nor did he make any type of homicidal statements to them. He never lunged at anybody with a knife. He never threw the knife at anyone. He didn’t do so much as curse at those officers. So what we’re talking about here is a case where simple possession turns into a death sentence. It’s a comply or die mentality."

An SFPD training sergeant, Steven Pomatto, found that all of the officers acted in accordance with their training, and an independent use-of-force expert retained by the district attorney's office found the officers followed national standards for use of force.

"Though he believed that the officers acted in accordance with their training, Sgt. Pomatto would have preferred it if the officers had been able to take cover, but explained that the presence of bystanders may have caused the officers to create a tight perimeter around Woods," the report says. "Sgt. Pomatto also said the officers' tight semicircle increased the risk of cross-fire -- i.e., officers hitting each other when they fired. The current training curriculum emphasizes more supervisory scene control with sergeants directing officers into position and handling crowd control."

The medical examination of Woods' body found an intoxicating level of methamphetamine in his system. The DA's report includes a forensic toxicologist's statement that the presence of methamphetamine may explain why Woods did not react to the impact rounds or pepper spray that officers used before he was shot.

"At the point at which the officers fired, Woods was less than eight feet away from Officer August," the report says. "At this distance, it was not unreasonable to believe that Woods posed an imminent threat of serious bodily injury to Officer August, even though Woods was not lunging towards or attempting to stab Officer August."

Luis Góngora

After the Woods shooting, Mayor Ed Lee and Police Chief Suhr each announced "a comprehensive review" of the SFPD's use-of-force policies -- including consultation with the federal agencies. A heated debate was playing out over what would become the Police Department's new use-of-force policy.

On the morning of April 7, 2016, two SFPD officers responded to a Mission District street after a homeless outreach worker called to report a man acting erratically and waving a large knife.

The San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team member who called police reported that she was reluctant to do so and would later struggle with the decision, according to the district attorney's report.

"[S]he has been traumatized by this incident and feels responsible because she was the one who called 911," the report says.

SFPD Officer Michael Mellone and Sgt. Nate Steger first contacted Góngora just after 10 a.m. as he was sitting with his back against a PG&E building on Shotwell Street, holding a knife. They were soon joined by Officer Esteban Perez.

Steger and Mellone approached Góngora, ordering him to drop the knife. Mellone can be seen on surveillance video originally published by the San Francisco Chronicle pointing a shotgun that fires impact rounds, and Steger drew his firearm to provide cover to Mellone, according to the officers' statements in the district attorney's report. Perez repeated the commands to drop the knife in Spanish, according to the report.

At one point, Mellone broadcast that the suspect "just dropped the knife," but Góngora almost immediately picked it back up, according to the report, which cites all three officers' statements and several civilian witness accounts.

About 22 seconds elapsed between the officers' initial contact with Góngora and the gunshots that would kill him, according to the report and the surveillance video, which captures the officers but does not show Góngora's actions because he was outside the camera's frame.

Mellone fired four beanbag rounds from the impact weapon. The rounds hit Góngora as he was seated and starting to stand, according to Mellone's statement in the district attorney's report.

"Officer Mellone said he was stunned by how ineffective the beanbags were," the report says.

After he stood, Góngora took a couple of steps, then turned and ran toward Steger, according to the officers' statements and multiple civilian witnesses.

"Because he was 'scared' that Góngora was going to kill him, Sergeant Steger fired his gun at Góngora's torso as Góngora got within approximately eight to ten feet," the report says."Góngora continued to advance toward him, so Sergeant Steger backed away and fired additional rounds, including a shot to Góngora's head. Sergeant Steger felt he had no choice but to use deadly force."

Mellone transitioned from the impact shotgun to his firearm and also shot at Góngora. Perez did not fire his weapon.

An autopsy found Góngora was shot six times, including once in the head. He was pronounced dead at the hospital later that day. A city forensic toxicologist found that "Góngora's methamphetamine level was high enough to kill or hospitalize a non-habitual user," according to the district attorney's report.

Witnesses who lived in a cluster of tents on Shotwell Street said on the day of the shooting that Góngora was not holding the knife when he was shot, and that they believed it was tucked into his belt. The district attorney's investigation found that those accounts did not match the physical evidence, including the discovery of the knife near Góngora's body, and other witness accounts of the knife still being in his hand immediately after he was shot. The district attorney's report found that Góngora had traveled about 23 feet toward Steger during the short encounter, based on his initial position and where he fell after he was shot.

The district attorney's report on the Góngora shooting appears more critical of officers' tactics than the report on the shooting of Woods. It says, "[T]his evaluation does not address issues such as whether officers used appropriate crisis intervention tactics or issues related to civil liability." (Emphasis in original document.)

In an interview Wednesday, Gascón was more straightforward.

"The whole concept of time and distance never really played a role" in the Góngora shooting, Gascón said. "The question for me is not the last 10, 15 seconds of the incident. The question for me is was that necessary? Do we have to push ourselves to get to that point. Everything happened in 22 seconds."

Suhr, who wrote the initial policy that required SFPD officers to create "time and distance," made similar statements in the days following Góngora's death.

"I’ve been talking time and distance and de-escalation -- that’s pretty much all I’ve been talking about all of 2016," Suhr said a week after the shooting. "So there’ll be a lot of questions about tactics on why that didn’t happen."

Góngora's death escalated pressure for Suhr's ouster, including the launch of a 17-day hunger strike outside Mission Station. Suhr resigned on May 19, 2016, hours after the fatal police shooting of Jessica Williams on a Bayview District street.

'Reasonable' Versus 'Necessary'

Gascón said he supports AB 931 -- the legislation changing the legal standard for police use of force -- because it would allow consideration of alternatives to deadly force when making charging decisions about police shootings.

More important, Gascón said, changing the legal standard would force police departments to alter training and use-of-force policies and would prevent many shootings.

"I don’t believe that we want to live in a society where we take human life so lightly that we’re willing to take it just because we can," he said.

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