SFPD Officers in Mario Woods Case Recount Shooting in Newly Filed Depositions

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A screenshot from bystander video moments before five officers shot at Mario Woods on Dec. 2, 2015.

For the first time in the more than 2½ years since the fatal shooting of Mario Woods jolted San Francisco and its Police Department, the five officers who opened fire on the Bayview man have testified about the fatal encounter in court depositions.

The city attached several hundred pages of transcripts and declarations Wednesday to a motion that essentially seeks dismissal of a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Woods' mother. The case is scheduled for trial later this year.

The documents reveal the existence of a recently surfaced cellphone video of the shooting from a different vantage point than those that became public in the hours after the shooting. They also disclose testimony from other responding police officers and from the man the 26-year-old Woods allegedly stabbed in the shoulder shortly before the late afternoon shooting.

"The undisputed facts support the officers' use of force," the city's motion for summary judgment argues.

"The officers knew Woods had already stabbed someone in the middle of the afternoon," the motion says. "Woods brandished an eight-inch knife when Officer August approached him, in full police uniform, and ordered him to drop his knife. Woods ignored dozens of commands to drop his knife, to get on the ground, and to stop."

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A Stabbing and a Search

Officers had fanned out around the southern Bayview district on Dec. 2, 2015, looking for a stabbing suspect after Marcel Gardner had driven himself to San Francisco General Hospital with a puncture wound to his left shoulder.

"I was minding my own business, eating a cheeseburger, hanging out with some people," Gardner said in a November 2016 deposition filed Wednesday. He said Woods appeared intoxicated and started banging on the driver's side window of Gardner's parked car.

"All I know is, after I got out the car, I was stabbed," Gardner said.

He said he drove to the hospital but hesitated to go inside "[b]ecause I didn't want to deal with any police officers."

He was eventually treated and told a sheriff's deputy that he'd been stabbed by a "light complected male wearing a hooded sweatshirt" near his home, according to the deputy's declaration.

An SFPD officer dispatched to the scene noticed a 5-foot-8 black man with a baseball hat, hoodie and a backpack. A woman later told the officer that the stabbing suspect was still in the area, and her description matched the man he'd seen earlier. But officers failed to locate him.

Sometime after 4 p.m., Officer Charles August spotted a potential suspect less than a half-mile north of the stabbing scene and pointed him out to his partner, Officer Brandon Thompson.

'I'm Not Going With You'

"My partner said, ‘Hey, Brandon, that looks like it may be the guy.’ " Thompson said in a July 26 deposition. Thompson said he responded, " ‘OK, partner. Let’s go over there and try to talk to him.’ "

Woods was standing in line with other people waiting for a bus, holding a can of soda, according to the depositions and Muni video described in a district attorney's report on the shooting.

August said in his deposition that when he got out of his patrol vehicle, Woods said, "I'm not going with you."

"He presented the knife. I drew my firearm," August testified. "I pointed it at him. And he said, 'You're going to have to squeeze that.' "

Blood recovered from the knife would later match Gardner's DNA, according to the city's court filings.

Thompson remembered Woods saying, "You better squeeze that motherfucker and kill me." But he added he didn't think Woods was suicidal.

Adante Pointer, who represents Woods' mother, Gwendolyn Woods, asked August if he took that as a suicidal statement, homicidal statement or a threat. August said no to all three questions.

A Call for Reinforcements

Woods started to walk away and the officers walked behind him. At approximately 4:33 p.m., Thompson broadcast over police radio that they were at Keith Street and Fitzgerald Avenue and that the suspect had a knife and was "coming at my partner," according to the DA's report. He requested that an officer respond with what the department calls an "extended-range impact weapon" — essentially a shotgun that fires beanbags or a larger launcher that fires rubber bullets — and broadcast again that Woods was pointing a knife at August.

Several more officers began to arrive and converge around Woods, August, Thompson and bystanders at the adjacent bus stop. Among them were Bayview Officers Nicholas Cuevas and Scott Phillips, who was in his last week of field training under Cuevas. They were just beginning their shift and had cut short a training that included videos of officer-involved shootings and assaults on police officers to respond to Thompson's calls.

"We had a Muni bus, it was 4:30 in the afternoon, kids were getting off school, getting home, getting ready to eat dinner, do their homework," Cuevas said in his deposition. "People are getting off work. This is a bedroom community, there is lots of people, pedestrian traffic at the time, and there was nothing to put in between us."

Officers Winson Seto and Shaun Navarro arrived separately. Navarro brought along an extended-range impact weapon that fires rubber bullets.

The officers converged in a semicircle around Woods, whose back was to a wall. Widely circulated bystander video shared on social media the day of the shooting begins at about this point.

August said several officers were shouting commands at Woods, and he decided to try something else.

"I lowered my voice, and because he would periodically look at me and say things, I would tell him, 'You know, just put the knife down; you know, let's not do it this way,' things of that sort," August said. He said at the beginning of his deposition that he had not returned to patrol since the shooting.

Navarro fired four impact rounds, hitting Woods in his lower body. Another officer, Jennifer Traw, fired two beanbag rounds from a shotgun. Officer Jessie Ortiz leaned into the semicircle and pepper-sprayed Woods. But he didn't drop the knife.

'Fire in His Eye'

Most of the officers said in depositions that they suspected Woods was under the influence of drugs.

Ortiz told homicide investigators that "Mario had fire in his eye," according to his April 18 deposition. He was asked to explain what he meant.

"It’s a term I use for like if — if someone’s possibly on narcotics or they — when you go through confrontation you see when someone gets angry, you see their eyes get like really just — they the bulge out," Ortiz said. "They have fire. I guess it’s — it’s — it’s just very intense."

The city's latest filings include a declaration from Dr. John Mendelson, who analyzed the findings from toxicology tests run on Woods' blood. He wrote that Woods "suffered synergistic toxicity" from a high concentration of methamphetamine and cough medicine in his system, along with antidepressants and marijuana.

"The poor judgment shown by Mr. Woods in this case — brandishing a knife in the presence of several police officers — is a classic example of the inability of chronic stimulant abusers to appreciate significant risk," Mendelson wrote.

After the impact rounds and pepper spray, Woods can be seen on bystander video crouching down briefly before he turned and started to walk away from most of the officers. August stepped into his path.

"I sidestepped to my left to put a barrier between Mario and the people that I could hear behind me," August said. "He told me that I was going to have to shoot him."

Deadly Fusillade at Close Quarters

August said when he decided to fire, Woods was "close enough to stab or slash at me if he wanted to."

The officers all said Woods never threatened any officer with the knife, nor did he make any verbal threats. They also all said they believed Woods was an imminent threat to August.

August, Seto, Santos, Cuevas and Phillips all fired their semiautomatic pistols in a span of four seconds. Woods was hit 20 times and grazed once on his right cheek, according to the medical examiner's report on his death.

One of the non-SFPD witnesses deposed in the case was a former Muni bus driver. He was about 30 feet behind the officers, according to his July 25 deposition testimony.

He recorded video with his cellphone, but didn't share it with investigators until summer 2017.

"I was scared," the driver said. "I'm in the public eye. I'm in that area. I didn't know if there would be any backlash or repercussions for me providing that video."

The video was only recently turned over to plaintiffs' attorneys.

The man said was waiting to relieve another Muni driver at a stop near Third and Keith streets when he heard an officer say, "Drop the knife."

He said he heard Woods say, "Fuck you. Come get it."

He can be heard on the video he recorded saying, "It isn't worth it," according to testimony during his deposition.

"A knife ain’t worth your life, if they’re asking you to drop it, drop it." he testified. "As far as what I meant, that's what I meant."

A Change in SFPD Training

Pointer and other attorneys for Woods' mother pressed the officers on whether they made any plans about how they would approach the suspect and what they would do if the "less-lethal" impact rounds didn't work. None of the officers could say who was in charge of the scene, and they said there was little to no planning before they surrounded Woods.

"But I would call our training and us, kind of — for lack of a better phrase — 'vibing' off of each other and just dealing with the scene, knowing how each other works, as you know essentially some order of communication," Officer Navarro said in his deposition. "And there was a plan in our training on how you deal with a suspect with a knife."

San Francisco Police Department training changed as a direct result of the Woods shooting.

Malia Cohen, who represents the Bayview on the Board of Supervisors, later said the shooting resembled an "ethnically diverse firing squad."

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Late Mayor Ed Lee and former Police Chief Greg Suhr promised reform and invited a federal review of the department. Former Police Commission presidents Suzy Loftus and Julius Turman spearheaded an effort to rewrite the rules governing officer use of force. The commission adopted the new rules in June 2016, a month after Suhr was forced out after two more fatal police shootings.