The family of a man shot and killed in San Francisco last month is urging the U.S. Department of Justice to examine whether there is pervasive racism in the policies and practices of the city’s Police Department.
Noted civil rights attorney John Burris, who is representing the family of 26-year-old Mario Woods, held a news conference this morning to call for a federal investigation into the shooting of Woods on Dec. 2 and an independent investigation into the city’s use of force procedures.
Burris filed a federal civil rights case against the department last month on behalf of Woods’ family and is now asking for two federal investigations. He wants an investigation into whether the five officers criminally violated Woods’ civil rights when they shot him and wants a broader investigation into whether there is a pattern and practice of discrimination in the department.
“To me, this is an opportunity to clean house, put forth a new vision for the Police Department and for the city,” Burris said.
While Mayor Ed Lee has called for a review of the Police Department’s use of force policies, Burris questioned whether police Chief Greg Suhr is capable of objectively evaluating his own department, arguing Suhr has a vested interest in department policies and has repeatedly publicly defended them.
“He has taken a public position vindicating and supporting the police officers’ conduct … and the policies in effect,” Burris said. “He should not be the one to evaluate the policies and procedures in effect at the time.” Woods’ shooting on the afternoon of Dec. 2 has spurred outrage after several videos of it were posted to social media in the subsequent days.
Police said Woods was a suspect in an earlier stabbing of a victim who arrived at San Francisco General Hospital at 3:49 p.m. and said he had been stabbed near the corner of Third Street and Le Conte Avenue.
Police said officers arrived to find Woods, still holding a knife and with blood on his clothes, near a T-Third San Francisco Municipal Railway stop. In the videos, Woods can be seen against a building, surrounded on two sides by officers with their guns drawn.
He motions toward the officers, staggers, and then tries to walk away along the building as one of the officers moves into his path. A moment later, numerous shots ring out and Woods falls to the ground as the gunshots continue. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Police have said he was carrying a knife as he moved toward one of the officers. Officers deployed a less-lethal “bean bag” round, forcing him to drop to one knee, but it did not incapacitate him.
Adante Pointer, another attorney in Burris’ office, played one of the videos again at today’s news conference.
“This is not just an incident but a person executed in broad daylight on a public street,” Pointer said.
Woods’ mother, Gwendolyn Woods, stepped out of the room while the video played. She later spoke briefly, sobbing as she recalled her son’s shooting:
“I wonder how scared he was, I wonder did he feel the pain. Did he wonder where I was? … I hope he didn’t suffer.”
Two city supervisors, London Breed and Malia Cohen, have already called for a federal investigation into Woods’ shooting and other supervisors have publicly apologized to the family while also calling for a review of use of force policies.
They compared Woods’ shooting to other recent shootings by San Francisco police, such as the case of Alex Nieto, who was shot by four officers while wielding a Taser stun gun on March 21, 2014, and Amilcar Perez-Lopez, who Suhr had said charged at officers before he was shot on Feb.
26, 2015, but an autopsy revealed was shot in the back.
But Burris and Pointer want a much broader investigation than into the specific shooting and are calling for an independent investigation into the department’s use of force policies and whether there is a pattern and practice of discrimination in the department.
Burris said he has no confidence for Suhr to lead such an investigation.
Pointer said since 2000, there have been 103 shootings by San Francisco police that have killed 37 suspects. In that time, no officer has faced discipline for firing their service weapon.
Since he was appointed chief in 2011, Suhr has overseen a string of scandals, including the indictment of several veteran officers for stealing from suspects in single-room occupancy hotels during drug raids.
In the course of that case, court documents revealed that more than a dozen officers had been trading racist and homophobic text messages with each other.
Once the documents became public, Suhr sought those officers’ termination, but a San Francisco judge ruled last month that he couldn’t because the department had known about the messages for more than a year before they became public and did not act within the statute of limitations for discipline.
Pointer called the text messages an “explosive revelation” that potentially exposed a deep culture of racism in the department:
“This is the same mentality they took out into the streets while policing. … How many more have similar thoughts?”
Among the policies Burris wants to see examined is how police officers deal with suspects with knives. Officers in Woods’ case surrounded and confronted Woods aggressively, escalating the situation, a sharp contrast to tactics deployed abroad where police frequently deal with suspects with knives without shooting them, Burris said.
The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office has not announced a decision on whether the officers who shot Woods will face criminal charges.