Although it’s been years since their deaths at the hands of the San Francisco Police Department, the names of Mario Woods, Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez Lopez, and Luis Góngora Pat continue to dominate headlines. Their families have filed suits against the city, and charges against officers remain under investigation. Despite pressure from activists last year, District Attorney George Gascón declined to file charges against the officers involved in the Góngora Pat and Woods cases, claiming that the shootings did not violate law and further adding that his hands were tied until the laws changed.
But change may be on the horizon. District Attorney candidate Suzy Loftus announced a plan Tuesday to increase police accountability. She promised to have the Independent Investigations Bureau make charging decisions against police officers in their personal capacity and publish the findings of investigations. (Though some details continue to emerge, the District Attorney’s office does post findings online.)
She would also invite the California Department of Justice to conduct independent investigations of officer-involved shootings, although it’s unclear they would always step in.
“Holding those in power accountable is vital, and San Franciscans must be able to trust that the justice system is here to protect and serve them,” Loftus, a former Police Commission president, said. “Members of law enforcement are entrusted to exercise authority over the lives of San Franciscans, and I will set clear standards for accountability.”
Chesa Boudin, a public defender running for District Attorney, feels that political will to enforce existing laws is what’s missing to change the status quo. Should he win the election, Boudin would make the results of his charging decisions public and would hold town halls in the interest of transparency. Based on the Woods and Góngora Pat videos, he said it’s hard to imagine why no criminal charges were filed.
“The powers that be who are supposed to stand up and enforce the law within the police department have failed to do so for many years,” Boudin said. “It doesn’t matter what the text, the statute, or general order is if no one follows it.”
There have been some consequences, although none against individual officers. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved a $400,000 settlement to the mother of Mario Woods over his death in 2015. Five officers shot and killed the 26-year-old as he was cornered against a wall, sparking outrage nationwide and attracting attention from the federal government.
The settlement was approved the same day the U.S. Justice Department announced it declined to bring charges against the New York police officer who put Eric Garner in a 2014 chokehold. Garner later died after famously uttering, ”I can’t breathe.”
Loftus’ plan comes weeks after an independent assessment of the fatal shooting of Góngora Pat was made public. In late June, the Department of Police Accountability released records that recommended suspending Officer Michael Mellone for 45 days. Investigators found that he “failed to follow almost every directive” before firing a bean bag gun at Góngora Pat near 18th and Shotwell streets in 2016.
“Officer Mellone unilaterally and immediately escalated to greater force in this situation, which involved an individual that was experiencing a mental-health crisis,” Henderson wrote in a June 14 letter to Chief Bill Scott. “His escalated force appears to have aggravated the individual, forcing Officer Mellone and another officer to use lethal force that resulted in death.”
DPA Director Paul Henderson also recommended the 30-day suspension of Sgt. Nathaniel Steger for improperly supervising Mellone as he fired the bean bag gun. The Examiner obtained the above records under Senate Bill 1421, the state’s new transparency law that took effect this year.
And, another state bill may be making inroads to provide more oversight for our officers. Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to sign Assembly Bill 392, which would make California’s use of force laws one of the nation’s strictest. Instead of allowing officers to employ deadly force when they think it’s “reasonable,” they may do so when “necessary,” defined as when the officers or the public face an imminent threat of deadly or serious bodily harm.
That the bill passed in the legislature signals waning influence of the state’s law enforcement lobby. And in San Francisco, police accountability is on the minds of major district attorney candidates.
These actions may be too late for Woods, Góngora Pat, Jessica Williams, and so many more, but they have the potential to save lives — and familial grief — moving forward.