SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) - The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office announced Thursday no crime was committed in two controversial officer-involved shooting deaths that happened in 2015 and 2016.
District Attorney George Gascon released a recap of the investigation, legal analysis and charging decisions for the separate incidents just before noon, in which he concluded the evidence did not prove the shooting was unjust. Mario Woods was shot and killed by San Francisco police on December 2, 2015 and Luis Gongora Pat was shot and killed April 7, 2016. Police said both suspects had a knife in their hand.
"Use of force cases can only be charged if we can prove that it was unreasonable for the officer to be in fear for their life or someone else's," said District Attorney George Gascon. "Whether or not the officer could have used another tactic such as non-lethal force, or simply waiting, is not a factor we can even consider under current law."
Leading to the 2015 shooting, police were searching for a suspect who reportedly stabbed another person with a knife when they came across a man who fit the suspect’s description, later identified as 26-year-old Woods. At least 10 officers responded and surrounded Woods in a semi-circle, according the district attorney. Police said Woods moved toward an officer while armed with a knife, prompting multiple officers to open fire. Video later released sparked outrage.
Five officers were placed on administrative leave and the U.S Department of Justice conducted a “comprehensive review.” A six-month investigation found that the San Francisco Police Department does not effectively record or investigate officer's use of force, their anti-bias training is poor and their disciplinary process is concealed from the public. At a town-hall meeting held shortly after Woods’ death, roughly 300 people showed up seeking details and explanation. In January 2016, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors approved July 22 as a day of remembrance for Woods, which is his birthday.
“With the science demonstrating that jurisdictions with more restrictive use-of-force standards are safer for the community and police alike, we can do better,” Gascon said. “I hope the legislature and Governor will listen to the facts rather than the rhetoric, and pass AB 931 to ensure police are trained and incentivized to seek out alternatives to lethal force.”
Police said Woods crouched down at one point after they used less-than-lethal force, but stood back up with the knife still in his hand. Woods walked towards an officer and then five officers opened fire. They fired 26 shots. Woods died on the scene.
Civil rights attorney John Burris represented the Woods family and filed a lawsuit. Burris said he had an audio expert enhance cell phone video footage of the shooting. He said, when played frame-by-frame, Woods appeared to have his hands at his side when the first shot was fired. Burris’ office called the shooting an “unnecessary and tragic death at the hands of the San Francisco Police Department.”
And then about four months later, in 2016, police shot and killed Gongora Pat, a 45-year-old homeless Mayan immigrant they said was armed with a large kitchen knife. They were responding to a report of a man swinging a knife on Shotwell Street near 18th Street. Surveillance video showed officers first firing less-lethal beanbag rounds and then bullets less than a minute after arriving.
Responding officers said Gongora Pat was sitting on the sidewalk with the knife in is hands and the blade pointed up. Police said they ordered him to put it down in both English and Spanish. He put it down and then picked it back up, police said. That’s when an officer fired a beanbag round. Gongora Pat got up and ran towards the officers, prompting two officers to fire seven times, according to police. Gongora Pat was fatally hit by six of them.
The district attorney’s office said the video shows an officer quickly backpedaling away from Gongora Pat and that suggests Gongora Pat was moving toward the officer’s direction during the shooting. They added that the majority of witnesses corroborated the officer’s statement that Gongora Pat had a knife during or immediately after the shooting.
For an officer to be charged in a fatal shooting, “a prosecutor must be satisfied that the evidence shows beyond a reasonable doubt the officer had no legal justification for the act.”
The families of both Woods and Gongora Pat waited over two years to get the news that no charges would be filed against the officers who fired the fatal shots.
In Spanish the Gongora Pat family was blunt, calling Gascon a coward for not pressing charges.
The attorney for the Gongora Pat and Woods families says while he and the families are clearly disappointed with the D.A'.s decision to not prosecute, they will pursue a civil claim against San Francisco.
Several community members and city officials denounced the decision.
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi called the decision "mind boggling."
"A hail of bullets is not an appropriate police response to people suffering mental health crises," Adachi said in a statement. He argued that in both cases, police were not in immediate danger when they fired their weapons.
"To date, not a single officer in San Francisco has ever been criminally charged as the result of shooting a citizen, yet citizens are charged with crimes every day despite prosecutors being unable to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It is clear prosecutors are using a different standard in judging police officers' conduct," Adachi said in a scathing commentary.
San Francisco-Racial Justice Committee Chairperson Demarris Evans of the San Francisco Public Defender's Office said the decision Thursday "is another message to the San Francisco community that black and brown lives do not matter." He spoke to the amount of shots officers fired and the manner in which force was inflicted.
"There was no effort made to de-escalate and to spare his [Woods] life," Evans said. "The lack of any attempt to seek justice and hold any officers accountable for this shooting is completely unacceptable."
Supervisor Malia Cohen, whose District 10 includes the Bayview, expressed "sadness, disappointment, and great frustration" at the D.A.'s decision.
"I find it absurd that 2 1/2 years passed before this decision was shared with the public," she wrote in a statement.
Cohen added that the decision undermines community-police relationships.
Bay City News wire service contributed to this report