At a community meeting held Tuesday, Chief of Police Greg Suhr addressed a small crowd of community members to offer additional context to Sunday’s fatal officer-involved shooting of 32-year-old Matthew Hoffman. The narrative laid out by Suhr furthered the depiction of Hoffman as a man in a “dark place in his life” who may have been planning his apparent suicide by police for several months.
“This entire event is very sad for all those involved,” said Suhr to the small crowd of about 20 people gathered at the Corner Stone Church.
At approximately 5:20 p.m, Suhr described Hoffman as entering the restricted area of the Mission Station parking lot where three sergeants were on their way to get coffee. At first he appeared to comply when the sergeants told Hoffman to exit the lot. While officers got into their patrol car, Hoffman remained in the same spot for some time. Concerned, the officer got out of their vehicle, told Hoffman to exit, at which point he backed away towards Valencia Street with his hands in his pockets, “staring at the officers.”
When Hoffman lifted up his sweatshirt to display what was later revealed to be an airsoft pistol—with legally mandated orange markings blacked out—and pointed it at the officers, two of them fired five rounds each at Hoffman. Three bullets landed in his forearm, leg, and upper body. He died from his wounds later that night at San Francisco General Hospital.
“Our officers are trained not to shoot to kill. We shoot so they don’t miss,” said Suhr about the use of force. “And we try not to shoot at all.”
Suhr says the officers had no way of knowing it was a fake gun and shot in defense of their own lives.
Suhr also described a string of troubling encounters with officers in San Francisco, and in Connecticut where Hoffman is from, that lead up to his death.
In March 2014, an officer safety alert from the police department in Norwalk, Connecticut described a man named Matthew Hoffman from Danbury, Connecticut who had sent a text message to one of its officers asking “what would happen if a person would point a fake gun at a cop, from six feet away?” In addition to the alert, which SFPD retrieved on Monday during its investigation, a firearms check also revealed Hoffman had a valid pistol permit at the time he sent the text message.
Around noon the day of Hoffman’s death, Suhr said that the 32-year-old’s father, who lives in Florida, had received a concerning text message stating that he was “thankful for everything [his father] had done for him.”
That afternoon Hoffman had two encounters with San Francisco police. At 2:15, Hoffman had asked two officers at a traffic stop about their fire arms and if they ever shot anyone. After that traffic stop, at 16th and Mission, he followed those two officers in their patrol car and continued to ask them about their fire arms.
At around the same time, Mission Station received a call about a suspicious person that matched Hoffman’s description, pacing back and forth at 16th and Mission Streets. The officers that were already with him confronted him and asked him to leave the area, and Hoffman complied.
Later that afternoon, Hoffman approached another officer on a criminal investigation at 16th and Mission and again asked the officer about his weapon. Hoffman was asked to step back, but continued to watch the officer as he carried out his investigation. The officer left the scene.
Hoffman’s next encounter with the police would end his life.
Following his death, police officers recovered Hoffman’s phone with three apparent suicide notes, one addressed to his father and a second addressed to a former girlfriend. The SFPD have delivered the note to his father, but have yet to reach the girlfriend. The third note was addressed “Dear Officer(s).”
In the third note, which SFPD released to the media with permission of Hoffman’s father and shared again at the meeting, Hoffman writes the following:
You did nothing wrong. You ended the life of a man who was too much of a coward to do it himself. I provoked you. I threatened your life as well as the lives of those around me. You were completely within your legal rights to do what you did. You followed protocols. You did everything right. I just want to find peace within myself. I am so sad and I am so lonely.
While the audience was smaller than similar meetings following officer-involved shooting, those gathered challenged Suhr’s telling of the event, and pressed him on how this kind of violence could be prevented.
“Do you have a plan to avoid this sort of thing in the future?” asked one man.
“Our officers are trained with crisis intervention to help those who are a danger to themselves,” said Suhr. “If a person intends for officers to fire, there’s nothing we can do.”
When asked about adopting non-lethal weapons, Suhr said that while he’s open to the discussion, it’s a “protracted additional conversation.” He reiterated that SFPD officers are trained not to kill, when they do shoot they aim for the largest target so as not to miss.
Regarding officers with crisis intervention training (CIT), special deescalation tactics for handling people with mental illness, Suhr said that there’s more officers with this training than any other major city. However, as KQED reported in September, SFPD had 18 percent of its force CIT trained, while experts recommend that at least 25 percent be trained.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Suhr said the SFPD, which adopted CIT in 2011, is ahead of schedule on its goals, with 325 officers currently trained.
The investigation into Hoffman’s death is ongoing. Suhr said that the surveillance video of the incident will likely be eventually released to the public. As the investigation continues, the officers involved in the incident are on paid administrative leave.
Regarding, the life of Hoffman leading up to his tragic death, Suhr said he didn’t know much. Public records and what is likely to be Hoffman’s Facebook page indicate that his mother died of cancer in 2006. The Connecticut man appears to have decided to move away from his home state to the Bay Area sometime after that.
“He seems to have come here for opportunity,” said Suhr.”But then clearly found himself in very dark place.”