Police Chief Greg Suhr told more than 100 angry crowd members at a town hall meeting on Wednesday at noon that the officers who shot and killed Luis Gongora last week feared for their lives when they killed the homeless man, because Gongora was wielding a knife. The meeting came after seven eyewitnesses to the shooting have told the press that Gongora posed no threat to officers.
“What I’ve heard is that he was running away because he was shot by bean bags,” said Adriana Camarena, a local activist who often speaks on the case of another police shooting victim, Alex Nieto. “He was running away from the pain.”
Department policy allows officers to use lethal force when they believe there is “imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury.”
Gongora, a 45-year-old homeless man who lived in an encampment on Shotwell Street between 18th and 19th streets, was killed last Thursday after two San Francisco police officers shot at him seven times and hit him six times, Suhr said Wednesday.
Members of a homeless outreach team called the police after seeing a man “forcefully kicking and bouncing a basketball against cars in the area” and “swinging the knife around in a chopping motion,” Suhr said. When officers arrived on the scene, they saw Gongora seated against a building with a 13-inch knife in his hand “with the blade pointed up.”
“They ordered him to put it down multiple times,” Suhr said. “Mr. Gongora briefly placed the knife down with his hands still on top of the handle only to quickly pick the knife back up again.”
Suhr said the first responding officer then fired four beanbag rounds from a shotgun at Gongora’s arm “in an effort to disarm him.” Suhr then said Gongora “stood up and ran at one of the officers with a knife in his hand,” prompting two officers to fire seven shots within three seconds. Gongora died in the hospital three hours later.
That version has been contradicted by seven witnesses to the shooting. Three of those witnesses — Stephanie Grant, John Visor, and Rosalyn Barnett — were homeless neighbors of Gongora who said he did not raise a knife to officers and that the monolingual Spanish speaker likely did not understand police commands.
Suhr said that the third officer arriving on the scene spoke to Gongora in Spanish, but video of the incident obtained by the Chronicle did not capture any Spanish commands given to Gongora.
Two neighbors who saw the shooting from their windows across the street — S. Smith Patrick and an anonymous neighbor — told the Guardian that Gongora did not threaten officers.
Two other witnesses repeated those claims. One — a passerby named Ellen who saw the shooting from the corner of 19th and Shotwell streets — said that though her view was obstructed she never saw Gongora lunge. Christine Pepin — who can be seen running from the shooting in video of the incident — told the Guardian that Gongora did not seem to pose a threat.
Suhr said on Wednesday that investigators have spoken to 12 witnesses of the shooting. Three of those witnesses specifically mention Gongora holding a knife in his hand, another mentions Gongora lunging but makes no mention of the knife, and the others say Gongora was holding “something” in his hand or that they only saw the knife after Gongora was shot.
Audio of the dispatch call made before the shooting captures an officer saying, “has a large kitchen knife he just dropped,” according to KQED. A dispatch officer reported shots fired some 20 seconds later.
Three investigations into the shooting — by the homicide division of the Police Department, the District Attorney’s Office, and the Office of Citizen’s Complaints — have been launched, according to Suhr. The chief also said the names of the officers involved would be released within 10 days of the shooting, barring any serious threats to their safety.
On Wednesday, crowd members balked at the police account and pointed to the contradictory eyewitness testimony, frequently shouting “Fire Chief Suhr” throughout the meeting and lambasting the department for other police shootings in the last two years. Suhr’s employee evaluation by the police commission is scheduled for Wednesday evening.
— Joe Rivano Barros (@jrivanob) April 13, 2016
Many also decried the treatment of the homeless community throughout San Francisco, criticizing comments made by Mayor Ed Lee in the aftermath of the shooting promising that he would clear out encampments city-wide, starting with the Shotwell Street block.
“Mr. Mayor, blaming the homeless for what happened by cracking down on the homeless is not a solution,” said Supervisor David Campos.
Campos also blamed Suhr for holding the town hall at noon, when many would be unable to attend.
“If this town hall meeting is so important, why wasn’t my office informed of it?” he asked. “I know that if I wasn’t informed of it, there are many residents of this community who don’t even know that this meeting is happening.”
Suhr said the town hall is held in the area and near the time of the shooting, but Campos retorted that if a shooting were to happen at 2 a.m., he doubted “you would have a meeting then.”
— Joe Rivano Barros (@jrivanob) April 13, 2016
Other speakers pointed to a midnight raid of the Shotwell Street encampment by police officers on Saturday in which officers dismantled empty tents in search of a stolen motorcycle that they towed from the scene. A police spokesperson said after the incident he was unsure why officers were there.
Speakers said the late-night search amounted to harassment of eyewitnesses to the shooting.
“Why would they use sticks in front of these homeless people to knock down encampments in the middle of the night?” asked Frank Sosa, who was at the scene during the search Saturday. “Are you aware that they did this?”
“No,” Suhr answered, adding that he would investigate the officers involved and did not approve of the behavior described by speakers.
Matthew Castro, who said he was a good friend of Gongora’s for 13 years, wept while speaking to the police panel about his friend, saying the behavior described by the police was “completely out of character” and that the police account was “just a complete fallacy.”
“Luis was the most kindhearted, kindest, selfless,” he said. “The guy was 130 pounds and he was so, so docile. He was my best friend.”
Castro said he met Gongora working at a diner and would visit him at his apartment near Valencia and Market streets until Gongora was evicted in 2012. He lost track of him for a few years before reconnecting with him by visiting the Shotwell Street encampment. “He didn’t have a hostile bone in his body,” Castro said.
The town hall followed a press conference held at city hall in which Public Defender Jeff Adachi called for police use-of-force reform and a civil rights investigation into police practices by the office of California Attorney General Kamala Harris. Harris denied that request Wednesday and said she would continue to monitor the situation.
A small prayer service attended by three people at the site of Gongora’s death also preceded the meeting. A priest gave Gongora his rites, and attendees spoke about the impact of the shooting on the city.
“There are so many people dying, it’s tearing apart our community,” said Zoe Mullery, a Mission District resident. “I feel like it’s an epidemic.”