Six Witnesses State Homeless Man Posed No Threat When Police Shot Him to Death

Nicholas Iovino | Courthouse News Service

The police killing of a homeless man last week has called into question whether reforms have changed the way San Francisco police deal with mentally ill people and suspects wielding non-firearm weapons.

Police shot to death Luis Gongora, 45, within 30 seconds of approaching him on April 7. At least one officer involved had special training to de-escalate situations with mentally ill people.

“How do we square the ultimate outcome with the investment we’ve made in training?” Police Commission President Suzy Loftus asked during a Wednesday night meeting.

Police in February announced new training guidelines that emphasize using time, distance and other tactics to defuse situations when dealing with suspects brandishing non-firearm weapons.

Police Chief Greg Suhr pledged to look into “what we can put in place immediately” to create a time and distance requirement for officers in those situations.

Suhr described the 30-second encounter that ended in Gongora’s death, according to interviews with officers and witnesses.

A homeless outreach team was responding to reports of a baby crying in the area of a homeless encampment near 18th and Shotwell streets on April 7. The outreach team found no baby but did encounter a man in a disturbed mental state “swinging a knife indiscriminately,” Suhr said.

The outreach team called police and when officers arrived they saw Gongora sitting on a sidewalk with a 13-inch knife in his hand.

The officers ordered Gongora to drop the knife in English and Spanish, the chief said.

Gongora put the knife down, then picked it up again and refused to drop it, according to the officers.

After they fired beanbag rounds, the officers say, Gongora lunged at them with the knife. They shot about seven rounds at him.

Suhr acknowledged that witnesses have offered conflicting stories.

“One witness said they saw the suspect lunge at the officers,” Suhr said. “Another witness said they saw him rise from the sidewalk with the knife in his hand. Two witnesses said they never saw the knife, but saw it fall after he was shot.”

Six witnesses have rebutted the officers’ version of events, telling the Guardian newspaper Gongora did not pose a threat when he was killed.

The shooting is being investigated by the police department, district attorney’s office and the Office of Citizen Complaints, the city’s police watchdog agency.

A surveillance video released last week shows officers approaching Gongora on the street, but the shooting takes place off-screen. The officers shout, “Get on the ground!” and “Put it down!” seconds before gunshots ring out in the video.

“I saw the officers shouting. I didn’t see any de-escalation or time and distance. That’s a concern,” Police Commissioner Petra DeJesus said. “It’s not just changing the policy. We’re not seeing it in action.”

The San Francisco Chronicle reported last year that at least 14 people suffering from mental illness or “acting erratically” had been killed by police since 2010, though the department had trained 380 officers in crisis intervention.

Gov. Jerry Brown last fall signed into law Senate Bill 11, which requires police instructors to receive at least eight hours of crisis intervention training.

The bill was introduced by state Sen. Jim Beall after reports showed nearly half of the 22 people shot to death by police in Santa Clara County from 2004 to 2009 suffered from mental illness.

Published by Courthouse News Service.