Forcing the Issue

Robert Pinckney only wanted to sop up some beer with a friend, another homeless man who lived in an alley near Pine and Franklin. But before the two could open their third bottle that Sunday night last November, gunshots rang out. Curious, they ran down the block and into the path of Vic Lee Boutwell, a heavily armed drifter who had just attempted a carjacking and was pointing his .45 at the two men.

The 24-minute bullet spree that followed left Boutwell and a police officer dead, another cop and a paramedic wounded, and Pinckney shot in the arm and leg — and roughed up by cops who mistook him for the gunman's accomplice. Adding insult to injury, SFPD Chief Anthony Ribera declared last month that his officers “acted appropriately.”

Pinckney, however, tells a different story. “I didn't move till the shooting stopped,” the 35-year-old unemployed masonry worker remembers. “I called out, said I was a victim, been shot twice. Next thing I know, I see a flashlight shining at me and then I hear someone else say, 'I got a bead on him.' So I figured if I moved, I would be shot.

“I'm laying on my side,” Pinckney continues, “and the cops came rushing up, pulled me over and handcuffed me and drug me out to the middle of street. And that's when they started kicking me in the face and questioning me — asking me who I was, who was my partner. I guess they were talking about Boutwell. Over and over the same questions, and every time I tried to answer, they told me to shut up.

“I felt like I was gonna die,” Pinckney recalls. “I thought they were gonna kill me. I really did.”

It took 23 stitches to close up the gashes left by cops grinding Pinckney's face into the glass-strewn pavement (“like you put out a cigarette,” he reports). Pinckney spent about two months convalescing from all of his wounds at S.F. General and Laguna Honda hospitals.

Preoccupied with his recovery — “I was just glad to be alive,” he says — and concerned that he might jeopardize the medical care he needed, he never filed a complaint with the SFPD. “Oh, the cops came up and said, 'We're sorry,' and Mayor Jordan came and gave me a plaque,” Pinckney recounts. But, he says, after two interviews with the police he never, as promised, heard anything back.Still, Pinckney maintains he always “had it in mind to do something” about what he felt was mistreatment at the hands of the officers that night. “There had to be someone there from Northern Station who knew me,” he says, wondering at the confusion over his identity — particularly since many cops had cited Pinckney previously for a variety of offenses in the Matrix program's crackdown on the homeless.After Ribera declared at a mid-March Police Commission meeting that officers had acted appropriately, Pinckney retained a lawyer, who is preparing to file a civil lawsuit against the city. “He saved another man's life. He tried to grab the gun from the gunman,” remarks Pinckney's attorney, Linda Ross. Indeed, Pinckney struggled with Boutwell, knocking the gunman's .45 to the ground and giving his drinking buddy enough time to run to safety. Pinckney wasn't so lucky; Boutwell grabbed a rifle from his cache and shot the fleeing Pinckney in the leg. Pinckney tried to warn police that Boutwell was heavily armed, Ross notes, “But in response to his heroism, he had his face ground into the glass. The police treated him as though he were the criminal.”In fact, no one at police headquarters contradicts the essentials of Pinckney's account. SFPD Homicide Investigator Alex Fagan was quoted last November as saying, “Common sense dictated that we treat him as a suspect.” And Ribera's exoneration of the officers' behavior at the Police Commission meeting acknowledged that they had cut Pinckney's face on the pavement in the course of handcuffing him.Lt. Bill Davenport, the director of SFPD's Management Control Division who conducted the internal affairs investigation, defends the officers' use of force: “You have to understand, this was an extended gunfight. The initial call came out that there were several gunmen, so the officers didn't know if he was an accomplice.”Davenport notes that when police asked Pinckney to put his hands behind his back, he wouldn't expose his arms (Pinckney claims that because of the bullet wound, he simply couldn't move his right arm); so, Davenport says, the “three or four” officers present during Pinckney's “detention” and subsequent questioning had to struggle with him.Only after newspapers reported Pinckney's side of the story did Ribera order the investigation — “to clear the air.”Meanwhile, those same newspaper accounts of Pinckney's predicament caught the attention of a private housing agency, which arranged a subsidized apartment at the Cambridge Residence in the Tenderloin for Pinckney and his companion, Billy Turner (with whom he has lived on the streets since the two met after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989). Pinckney continues to need physical therapy; he still walks with a cane, and his right hand is in a brace while the nerves heal in his arm. But he and Turner seem content with their new surroundings — “Best part, we got our own private bathroom,” Pinckney says.They also have the help of a city-funded support services staffer in the building to help them make the transition to this new phase of their life. Pinckney and Turner pay the rent (a little more than $100 a month) out of their general assistance checks. With help from food stamps, they manage to get by. So, having turned a new leaf and with his body on the mend, why would Pinckney want to sue the city? The question — with its implication of awards for damages — makes him (and his lawyer, who hovers nearby during an interview) a little nervous. Pinckney smiles sheepishly and acknowledges that he's no angel: He tells of a past sprinkled with police citations for open containers, public inebriation and other minor offenses. Shortly before the November 13 shootout, Pinckney had even spent a stint in jail for trespassing. But his story is that of a homeless man standing up to the police, who have been busting him since his life on and off the city's streets began in the late '80s. “This ain't about clearing my name,” Pinckney says, pointing out that he never did anything wrong the night of the Pine Street shootout. He was, in every respect, an innocent bystander. Pinckney, his self-esteem bolstered by his new status as a man with an address, simply wants his day in court.

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