Attorneys Seek to Force DA, Former S.F. Police Chief to Testify in Mario Woods Case

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Former San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr (left) and District Attorney George Gascón may both be forced to testify in the Mario Woods case. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED and Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Attorneys representing Mario Woods’ mother are trying to force former San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr and current District Attorney George Gascón to give sworn testimony in a federal civil rights case over the fatal 2015 police shooting.

It’s part of a long-shot legal strategy to hold the city and high-ranking law enforcement officials liable for Woods' death, which sent a shock wave through the SFPD that eventually led to Suhr's resignation and a sweeping effort to reform the Police Department.

"We’re trying to stop the bloodshed," said Gwendolyn Woods' attorney, Adante Pointer. "What we see here is too many shootings that are going unpunished, undisciplined, unchecked, and we think there is definitely a culture of permissiveness at the San Francisco Police Department."

Both Suhr and Gascón, represented by San Francisco deputy city attorneys, have objected to subpoenas for their depositions.

"Chief Suhr and District Attorney Gascón didn’t witness the shooting," city attorney's spokesman John Coté wrote in an emailed response. "They don’t have facts that no one else has. This attempt to depose them is simply a transparent effort to harass current or former officials."

Gascón called the slaying of Woods "disturbing" and "unnecessary" when he announced his decision a month ago not to file criminal charges against the officers involved. He said the state of the law prevented him from charging the officers because "no crime was committed" -- a conclusion that Gwendolyn Woods' attorney, John Burris, disputes.

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"He’s flat wrong," Burris said. "The state of the law doesn’t allow you to just shoot somebody without justification -- police or not."

Mario Woods, a 26-year-old African-American, allegedly stabbed another man earlier on Dec. 2, 2015, when two patrol officers confronted him near a bus stop in the Bayview District. They would later tell investigators he brandished a knife and walked away.

Bystander video of the shooting starts after more officers arrived and deployed in a semicircle around Woods, who had a building at his back. Officers fired beanbag rounds at him and used pepper spray. Those measures appeared to slow Woods, but he didn't drop the knife. As he appears on the video to attempt to walk away, Officer Charles August stepped into his path, between Woods and a group of bystanders down the street.

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

August and four other officers fired, hitting Woods 20 times and grazing him once, according to an autopsy. Toxicology tests found methamphetamine and other drugs in his system.

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 as he moved toward an officer.

"The officer fearing for his safety ... he fired in defense of himself and the other four officers fired in defense of that officer," Suhr told the meeting.

A KQED analysis of the video indicated that Woods' hand did not rise until after he was shot and began to fall backward. Gwendolyn Woods' attorneys reached the same conclusion several days later, as did Gascón last month.

The legal mechanism to hold the city and high-ranking officials liable for Woods' death is called a Monell claim -- after a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The claim in the Woods case alleges San Francisco "has engaged in a pattern and practice of excessive force, failure to discipline and ratification of police misconduct, which proximately caused the police shooting of Mario Woods," according to recent filings in the case.

University of San Francisco law professor Lara Bazelon said Monell claims are typically very hard to prove. But several scandals surrounding the SFPD before and after Woods' death bolster the strategy in this case, she said -- most importantly, Suhr's statements directly following the shooting.

"That actually underscores why this case may be different," Bazelon said. "Chief Suhr presided over a very tumultuous tenure, in which not only were there fatal uses of force by police against people of color under extremely controversial circumstances, there was also the scandal involving racist and homophobic text messages."

Woods' attorneys reference in their arguments the wide-ranging case of racist, homophobic and otherwise inappropriate text messages sent by other officers that came to light in spring of 2015, several months before Woods was shot. The city attempted to fire several of the officers, but that effort was delayed for three years through a legal challenge funded by the police officers union.

In the months after Woods was shot, Suhr and former Mayor Ed Lee requested different types of intervention from the U.S. Department of Justice while the city's Police Commission rewrote SFPD's 20-year-old use-of-force rules. The DOJ's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services eventually conducted a review that found deficiencies throughout the SFPD. That's something else cited in Woods' arguments.

"The Monell claim in this case is frivolous and should be dismissed," city attorney's spokesman Coté said via email. "The San Francisco Police Department’s policies and practices have long conformed to constitutional standards. That has been proven in case after case for years. Changing a policy is not an indication it was unconstitutional."

There are indications that federal Judge William Orrick is not as dismissive of Woods' Monell claim as the city attorney's office is: He has already allowed it to continue as part of the overall case instead of granting the city's request to split it off and address potential liability of city officials only if the officers' conduct is found to have violated Woods' constitutional rights.

Surprisingly, at least a part of the city attorney's office and Woods' attorneys agree on one issue: Both sides want the district attorney's case file on his investigation into the shooting. Represented by another part of the city attorney's office, Gascón objected.

"The parties are presently meeting and conferring with counsel for the district attorney, but anticipate the issue will require court intervention," a recent case management statement says.

USF's Bazelon said Woods' Monell claim "raises an extremely important issue."

"[It] makes a big difference in terms of what we as the public get to know about how our police officers are responding in situations like this, which are fraught and complicated and where lives are on the line," she said. "If you get Greg Suhr on the witness stand in a trial, that opens up a public reckoning that we wouldn’t otherwise ever have, certainly not under the criminal justice system given that there is not going to be a prosecution in this case and likely any of the others."

Both parties are scheduled soon to file further briefs about the Suhr and Gascón depositions, as well as other disputes in the case. If Orrick doesn't rule based on the filings, the parties are scheduled for a hearing on June 28.