Chief Suhr defends force against homeless man

San Francisco police Chief Greg Suhr said Thursday that a police officer who struck a homeless man with his baton and then administered pepper spray after rousting him from the back of a San Francisco Municipal Railway bus earlier this month was simply doing as he was trained.

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi released surveillance video earlier today of the incident, which showed the police officer appearing to pursue and strike the man with a baton.

The homeless man, identified by Adachi’s office as 36-year-old Bernard Warren, was arrested on suspicion of threatening an executive officer and was incarcerated for two weeks following the incident. His case is set to go to jury trial on March 6, according to the public defender’s office.

The public defender’s office also released quotes from San Francisco police Officer Raymond Chu’s report of the incident, which describes Warren approaching Chu with “clenched fists.” However, the surveillance video released today appears to show Chu continuing to pursue Warren once he gets him off of the bus.

Chu “lost his temper,” Adachi said in a statement.

Suhr defended the officer, saying that based on the video, the police report and the bus driver’s statements, the incident is not as shocking as Adachi would have the public believe. San Francisco police spokeswoman Officer Grace Gatpandan said Chu is a 10-year veteran of the Police Department.

The incident in question began at about 11 p.m. on Feb. 11 when a 5-Fulton Muni bus reached the end of the line at Cabrillo and La Playa streets near Ocean Beach. Warren was asleep at the back of the bus and Chu was called in to remove him, according to Suhr.

Suhr said it is not uncommon for someone to be found asleep at the end of the line, but in this incident, the bus driver called for police to wake Warren up because he believed him to be threatening and possibly dangerous. The video shows it takes about 30 seconds for Chu to wake Warren up.

Once Warren is awake, he appears disoriented and is slow to stand up and walk toward the bus exit. Chu starts leading Warren toward the back door of the bus, but when Warren turns and says in slurred speech, “I could beat your ass,” Chu becomes aggressive and throws his weight on the man, pushing him toward the door, the video shows.

Once outside of the bus, the video shows Warren as he walks away from the bus. Chu pulls out his baton and, walking toward Warren, repeatedly asks, “Are we done here?” In the video, Warren briefly turns back toward Chu, who then strikes him with the baton.

The officer and Warren then go outside of the area covered by the Muni surveillance video. Suhr said that Chu wrote in the police report that he hit Warren in the legs five times but it was ineffective, so he decided to use the pepper spray.

The public defender’s Chief Attorney Matt Gonzalez said in a statement that Chu’s actions were a “reckless and unnecessary escalation of force”:

“There was no justification for the use of a baton or pepper spray. Officers must be trained to diffuse conflicts rather than intensify them. We should not expect these routine encounters to end in bruises and burns.”

The police chief said the suspect is “clearly outside himself” and verbally threatening at the time of the incident and that Chu acted as he was trained to do so. Suhr said all San Francisco police officers are trained on how to deal with people who are not mentally sound.

According to Suhr, the court has found sufficient evidence to hold the case over to trial and that Chu has not faced discipline for the incident. Warren faces up to a year in jail if convicted of the threats charge, according to the public defender’s office.