Man shot by police had been seeking housing

The 27-year-old San Francisco man who was fatally shot by officers in San Francisco’s Mid-Market neighborhood last week was, along with his mother, struggling to find a place to live the day that he was killed.

Herbert Benitez was fatally shot by a police sergeant on Oct. 15 shortly after noon on Eighth Street between Market and Mission streets after he allegedly took another sergeant’s firearm, according to San Francisco police Chief Greg Suhr.

Benitez’s mother, Sylvia Benitez, 62, said in a phone interview today that she and her son were having trouble finding work and a place to live.

Sylvia Benitez said she came to the United States from El Salvador in 1982.

She said her son, who was born in San Francisco and went to high school in Daly City, had an internship and then a job as a bank teller at Washington Mutual Bank after his high school graduation. He also worked as a tutor to children in need of homework help.

The bank ceased operations in 2008. More recently, Herbert Benitez had been working as a dishwasher at a restaurant, but then lost that job and failed to find another, his mother said.

Rosa Seagraves, a family friend to the Benitez family, spoke about the family’s struggle today at a vigil for Benitez held on the street where he died.

Seagraves, a Daly City resident, is allowing Benitez’ mother to stay in her home.

Seagraves said she met the pair about seven years when they moved into a home in Daly City. She said their rent rose so high so fast that after a couple years they were forced to move. Since then they have struggled to keep permanent housing.

The pair has been moving from hotel to hotel. The day Benitez died, the pair wasn’t sure they’d be able to scrape enough money together to get a hotel room, Seagraves said.

Julio Escobar, with the San Francisco Archdiocese’s Restorative Justice Ministry, stood near Benitez’ place of death today and explained that the family cannot, at this point, afford to have a burial or funeral ceremony.

Police said Benitez had been with his mother at the San Francisco Public Library’s main branch just prior to being killed.

Suhr said that on the day of his death, at 12:06 p.m., a construction worker saw Benitez throwing glass bottles into the street and asked him to stop, fearing that the broken glass would puncture truck tires as they entered and exited the construction site.

Apparently, Benitez did not verbally respond, Suhr said, but instead mumbled in an inaudible manner.

Suhr said Benitez continued to throw bottles, at which point a construction worker told Benitez he would call police. Benitez apparently told the construction worker to go ahead and make the call.

A group of construction workers then flagged down a marked SFPD patrol car heading south on Eighth Street, Suhr said.

The driver of the patrol car is a 29-year veteran of the police department who’s been a sergeant for 14 years. The passenger is a 17-year veteran of the department who’s been a sergeant for seven years.

According to police, the first sergeant got out of the driver’s side and made initial contact with Benitez while the other sergeant acted as cover.

Benitez apparently told the sergeants, “Don’t talk to me, people are watching me,” and then said, “Don’t f-cking touch me.” The first sergeant attempted to gain control of Benitez by his arms “at which point he became combative,” Suhr said. That sergeant then attempted to give Benitez distance so that he might calm down.

However, Benitez apparently came closer to the first sergeant and then reached his hand toward the sergeant, locking onto the sergeant’s vest, Suhr said:

“Benitez then took the sergeant to the ground, slamming him into the curb and landing on top of him.”

Benitez then attempted to take the first sergeant’s gun, at which point the first sergeant told the second sergeant, “He’s getting my gun.” Suhr said Benitez was able to get the gun from the sergeant’s holster and point it into the face of the first sergeant.

Suhr said a struggle ensued “with the sergeant looking down the barrel of his own gun, yelling now to his partner, ‘He’s got my gun. Shoot him.'”

Fearing for his life and the life of his partner, Suhr said, the second sergeant stopped trying to pull Benitez off his partner and fired two shots, striking Benitez.

Police said the officers called for an ambulance and began first aid before paramedics arrived, but Benitez was pronounced dead at the scene.

Suhr said the sergeants were transported to a hospital in stable condition. The first sergeant suffered a bruised rib with injuries to his face and knee, while the second sergeant suffered a bloody nose from being hit in the face.

On Monday, as with all fatal officer-involved shootings in the city, Suhr held a town hall meeting to discuss the incident.

Many of the Tenderloin residents who spoke at the meeting said they weren’t too surprised to hear about violence at that intersection.

They said the intersection by the library, which is also home to a Burger King and the Orpheum Theatre, is commonly the site of fights, public intoxication and illegal activities such as drug dealing and selling of stolen items.

Community member Angela D. said she was concerned that the police sergeants hadn’t received critical intervention training. She said she didn’t understand why the officers were unable to use de-escalation methods instead of violence against Benitez.

Suhr insisted that, although neither sergeant was certified in critical intervention training, their actions were consistent with the training.

Benitez’ death is being investigated as a homicide caused by gunshot wounds to the torso, deputy medical examiner administrator Chris Wirowek said, adding that a final autopsy report is underway.

Benitez’ death is being investigated by the San Francisco medical examiner’s office as well as police internal affairs and homicide investigators, the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office and if a complaint is lodged, the Office of Citizen Complaints, police said.