S.F. Oversight Agency Calls for Suspension of Officers Who Shot Homeless Man in 2016

A crime scene photo from the San Francisco Department of Police Accountability's case file shows the spot where Luís Góngora Pat was mortally wounded by police gunfire on April 7, 2016. (Via San Francisco Department of Police Accountability)

Updated 12:12 p.m. Wednesday

Investigators for San Francisco's police oversight agency have recommended the suspension of two officers who rushed and fatally shot a man holding a knife on a Mission District street three years ago, according to a Department of Police Accountability case file released Tuesday under a new transparency law.

The inquiry's finding that SFPD Officer Michael Mellone and Sgt. Nathaniel Steger be suspended for "neglect of duty" in the April 7, 2016, slaying of Luís Góngora Pat is unusual in that officers are rarely disciplined for fatal on-duty shootings.

The finding was made on June 14, 2019. Both officers have long since returned to duty, after being on administrative leave, and records show the completion of the oversight investigations stalled while a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by Góngora's family was resolved. San Francisco settled the case for $140,000 in April of this year.

"We want them not only to be suspended, but to be fired and not allowed to ever have another job in which they can carry weapons and risk the lives of families," Luis Poot Pat, the victim's cousin, said through an interpreter Wednesday in reaction to the Department of Police Accountability's recommendations.

"My family was destroyed by these two policemen," said Jóse Góngora Pat, brother of the slain man, adding that he still wants criminal charges to be filed against the officers, which District Attorney George Gascón declined to do in May 2018.

'Get on the Ground!'

The officers arrived on Shotwell Street between 18th and 19th streets at about 10 a.m., responding to a 911 call from a homeless outreach worker who reported seeing Góngora waving a large kitchen knife — though he wasn't directly threatening anyone.

The officers' approach was caught on a home security camera, showing Mellone pointing a shotgun loaded with beanbag rounds as he shouted "Get on the ground!"

Góngora, who was sitting against a wall outside of the video's frame, briefly dropped a large kitchen knife, then picked it up again, according to both officers.

"Put that down!" Mellone shouted as he fired the first of four beanbag rounds. He and Steger can be seen moving toward Góngora, and then out of view.

Góngora stood up after the fourth beanbag round hit him, according to transcribed interviews with the officers and witnesses, and then charged toward Steger, who took a few steps back before he opened fire with his service weapon, a semiautomatic pistol. Steger hit Góngora twice in the torso and once in the head.

Mellone switched from the shotgun to his handgun and also fired. Góngora was shot a total of six times and pronounced dead at San Francisco General Hospital later that day.

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A toxicology report later confirmed methamphetamine in Góngora's system. Both officers and some witnesses said he appeared to be in an altered state.

The fatal police shooting was the second in a trio of killings by SFPD officers in late 2015 and 2016 that led to former Police Chief Greg Suhr's resignation and other massive changes in the department.

The shootings fueled outrage over police shootings that often killed people in psychiatric crisis, as the SFPD had struggled for several years to institute de-escalation principles that instruct officers to create "time, distance and rapport" when confronting armed and potentially unstable people.

Suhr publicly questioned the officers' actions within days of the shooting.

"I’ve been talking time and distance and de-escalation — that’s pretty much all I’ve been talking about all of 2016," he said at a town hall meeting a week after Góngora's death. "So there’ll be a lot of questions about tactics on why that didn’t happen."

Pending Discipline

In its inquiry, the Department of Police Accountability found that Mellone rushed in and escalated a calm situation, and violated almost every one of the department's rules for using a shotgun with beanbag rounds, called an "extended-range impact weapon," or ERIW.

He didn't make a plan with Sgt. Steger, didn't call for an ambulance, didn't announce that he was about to fire the weapon, and shot all four beanbag rounds at the same area in an attempt to " 'shoot' the knife out of Góngora's hand," the Department of Police Accountability's investigation says, "contrary to the training he received."

"It was Mellone’s unilateral decision to escalate the force used and close the distance to Góngora that robbed the officers of the ability to create time and distance under the circumstances," the oversight investigation found, recommending a 45-day suspension.


The Police Department's internal investigation, which was completed in August 2018, also found that Mellone violated the policy governing "ranged impact weapons."

Civil rights attorney Adante Pointer, who represented Góngora's family in that lawsuit, said information that the officers violated policy was never turned over, and is now public only after the lawsuit was settled.

"They owe us honest conversations and information, period," Pointer said.

The final determination on the misconduct and discipline appears to still be pending.

The Police Department's Firearms Discharge Review Board sent the case back for further investigation in March of this year, and it's scheduled to be reconsidered in the next few weeks.

The internal Police Department investigation found no fault with Sgt. Steger and recommended training for both officers. The Department of Police Accountability, however, found that Steger failed to supervise Mellone and recommended the sergeant be suspended for a month.

As part of its probe, the oversight agency hired private consultant Michael Gennaco to review the shooting.

"As a supervisor, it was (Steger's) responsibility to instill concepts of ‘time and distance’ at the scene as expressly set out in the department’s training bulletin; in this case Sgt. Steger did or said nothing to advance these principles," Gennaco wrote in his report, finished in April of this year. “Had the sergeant performed consistent with department expectations of a field supervisor, the need to resort to deadly force could well have been avoided. Accordingly, a case can be made that Sgt. Steger should be held accountable for the supervisory lapses that impacted this tragic result.”

Department of Police Accountability Director Paul Henderson recommended that the ultimate discipline in the case be decided by the city's Police Commission, which handles cases involving potential punishments more severe than a 10-day suspension. He also requested a meeting with Police Chief William Scott before any final decisions on the case are made, according to the records. If Scott disagrees with the oversight agency's recommendations, Henderson can file the case directly to the Police Commission.

The Police Department did not immediately respond to questions seeking to clarify how the disciplinary process will proceed.

"We're in the process of making appointments with the DPA and chief of police so the family can express their demands to them directly," said Adriana Camarena, an advocate for Góngora's family. "We will also attend the next Police Commission meeting to make sure the commissioners act to ensure consequences."

This story was produced as part of the California Reporting Project, a collaboration of 40 newsrooms across the state to obtain and report on police misconduct and serious use-of-force records unsealed in 2019.

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