John Burris at a press conference on Friday, June 17, for the fatal police shooting of Luis Gongora Pat. Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.

The family of Luis Gongora Pat, the homeless man who was shot and killed by police officers in the Mission District in April this year, filed a claim against San Francisco alleging excessive force and wrongful death in the shooting of the 45-year-old.

Attorneys for the family say Gongora Pat was shot in the head and back from above, claiming officers fired at him while he was on the ground.

“He’s shot, shot, shot, shot, shot — side, back, top of the head,” said John Burris, a civil rights attorney based in Oakland who has represented several police shooting victims. “This should not have happened.”

Showing graphic images taken of Gongora-Pat’s body during an independent autopsy, Burris and his colleagues said that wounds to the forehead clearly indicate he was shot from above while lying or sitting on the ground.

“As you can see the trajectory goes down the top of his head and out the back of his head, indicating that he was below the officer, that the officer was above him and aimed down at the top of his head,” said Melissa Nold, a lawyer with John L. Burris Law Offices.

Lawyers did not hire a bullet trajectory expert for those conclusions, however, saying that’s a step they will likely take when the case goes to trial.

Those in attendance at the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist gasped and sometimes sobbed when viewing photos of Gongora Pat’s body, bruised purple from bean-bag rounds and shot-through from several bullets.

Gongora Pat’s two cousins and brother joined Burris for the press conference Friday afternoon, and his wife, parents, and three adult children were phoned in from their hometown in Teabo, Mexico.

“We are very hurt because of this terrible tragedy,” said Rosana Gongora-May, his daughter, speaking from Mexico. “We remember him with great love, that he was always kind and loving towards us. Despite his homelessness and poverty, he never lost contact with us here in Yucatan, and we always dreamt of coming back together.”

“I can’t tell you how much pain these families have to bear,” said Adriana Camarena, a Mission District activist who spearheaded organizing for police shooting victim Alex Nieto, who was killed in March 2014. “It takes a whole community to come around them, to face up to police.”

Burris said that several witnesses have Gongora Pat was not acting aggressively and was sitting against a wall when shot by police. He also said officers escalated the situation when they advanced toward Gongora Pat instead of speaking to him from a distance.

“You can’t create a confrontation and fight your way out of it, and shoot your way out of it,” he said.

But the city has held that the shooting was justified because Gongora-Pat lunged at officers with a 13-inch knife. The City Attorney’s Office released a statement saying Gongora Pat “posed an immediate and deadly threat” and that several witnesses saw him lunge at officers.

Gongora Pat was shot and killed on April 7, 2016, just feet from his tent in a homeless encampment on Shotwell Street between 18th and 19th streets. Video of the incident — which did not capture the shooting itself — shows three officers exiting their vehicles and advancing towards Gongora Pat, who is off-screen sitting with his back against a wall.

The officers were responding to a 911 call about from workers with the Homeless Outreach team about a man with a knife in the encampment, according to police.

Officer Michael Mellone, an officer with Mission Police Station, almost immediately draws and aims a bean-bag shotgun, an alternative to a firearm meant to disarm suspects. The officer shouts for Gongora Pat to “Put it down!” while advancing forward, referring to a 13-inch knife police and some witnesses say Gongora Pat had in his hand.

One de-escalation trainer said Mellone failed to create time and distance and establish a rapport with the suspect as officers are taught, however.  

Mellone then fires four bean-bag rounds at Gongora Pat, after which another officer, Sergeant Nate Steger, begins firing his handgun and is joined by Mellone. The pair fire a total of seven shots, hitting Gongora Pat in the head, arms, and shoulders and grazing his abdomen.

Though police said officers they fired in self-defense after Gongora Pat lunged at them, several eyewitnesses have contradicted that claim. They said Gongora Pat was sitting down against a wall, knife either on the ground or in his waistband, and did not lunge at officers when they approached him.

They also said he seemed confused by their shouting because he did not understand much English or Spanish. He carried a knife often and was resting against a wall after playing with a soccer ball, according to other residents of the encampment.

The case further galvanized Mission District opposition to the then-police chief, Greg Suhr, and convinced the so-called Frisco Five hunger strikers to start their 17-day fast to unseat the chief.

On Friday, Burris said that more systemic change is needed in the police department despite the Suhr’s departure.

“It looks like a pattern of the use of deadly force that takes place here and goes unchecked and unmonitored,” he said. “Who the chief is doesn’t matter, what we want is [for] the shootings to stop.”

Burris and his law firm are also representing the family of two other police shooting victims: Mario Woods, shot and killed in December 2015, and Nieto. A federal jury recently ruled against Burris in the Nieto case, saying the four officers involved did not use excessive force in his death.

The claim — a precursor to a lawsuit — regarding Gongora Pat alleges a laundry list of excessive force charges and alleges that the city violated Gongora Pat’s constitutional rights. It asks for damages “in excess of $25,000” to be decided during a trial in federal court — which may be as many as two and a half years away, lawyers said.

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Joe was born in Sweden, where the Chilean half of his family received asylum after fleeing Pinochet, and spent his early childhood in Chile; he moved to Oakland when he was eight. He attended Stanford University for political science and worked at Mission Local as a reporter after graduating. He then spent time in advocacy as a partner for the strategic communications firm The Worker Agency. He rejoined Mission Local as an editor in 2023.

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  1. Having watched the video clip of Mario Woods being executed by a firing squad in broad daylight on the streets of San Francisco, there is no question in my mind that the officers involved should be penalized to the fullest extent of the law and the city of SF sued for Mr. Woods’ unlawful violent death. Mr. Woods was a diminutive man who was clearly in an altered state at the time of his apprehension and, from what I recall, there were half a dozen to a dozen police officers aiming their guns at him as he stood up against a wall, completely defenseless, with the exception of a kitchen knife. I understand that it is quite possible to murder someone with a kitchen knife. However, considering the number of armed officers gathered there that day, who supposedly are trained to deal with situations such as this, it was most definitely not necessary to assassinate Mario Woods as he stood there messed up and helpless on the street facing possibly a dozen guns pointed at him. And I understand that, just prior Mr. Woods’ unfortunate encounter with the police, he may have been involved in a recent stabbing with that kitchen knife. But at that time none of the multitude of police officers knew for certain that that was the case and we will never know because they gunned down the alleged perp. He was not afforded the opportunity to have his day in court because he died that day.

    One of his family members stated that he was attempting to get his life together and, I know many will scoff at the validity of that statement and claim it as a cliche, but who among us knows for certain whether he was getting his life together or not? Mario Woods was a young man of twenty-six, a US citizen, who was in a struggle for survival and he did not deserve to die that day.

    I have worked with men imprisoned at San Quentin who, when they were young and foolish, committed crimes that landed them in prison for decades. And I have seen some of them come out and thrive, even though it’s extremely difficult to change one’s character after the age of five and even though the odds are stacked against them. Hope and Faith are real!

    Luis Gongora Pat is a whole other story and I hate to see any kind of parallel drawn between him and Mario Woods. Why was Luis Gongora Pat in SF to begin with? He apparently had no family here. He certainly didn’t appear to be contributing to anything. He wasn’t gainfully, although illegally, employed so that he could bust his butt working at jobs Americans won’t do so that he could send money home to his starving family, was he? No, he was apparently too messed up to work and was living in a tent on the streets of SF. He had to have either been accessing social services, panhandling or committing crimes in order to survive.

    There are many conflicting stories about this incident, but we do know one thing and that is that
    SFPD was not pursing Gongora the day he died. “Police say they were called to the scene by members of the city’s homeless outreach team who reported a ‘suspect waving a large kitchen knife’.” “They also said he seemed confused by their shouting because he did not understand much English or Spanish. He carried a knife often”.

    In 1624 John Donne wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;….any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

    I have held these words in my heart and mind from the first time I read them, and my heart breaks when I feel, see and hear the suffering in this world. I can only feel sadness for Mr. Gongora, a Mayan who spoke neither English, nor Spanish, and the circumstances that brought him to be homeless and without family; wielding a knife and messed up on something, on the hard streets of San Francisco. In a perfect world neither Mario Woods, nor Luis Gongora, would die such tragic and unnecessary deaths.

    From my point of view, Mario Woods, at twenty-six, could have turned himself around had he been given the opportunity to do so. He was American and he had every right to be here; he was young and therefore still salvageable, and he had a family here that loved him.

    Luis Gongora was an illegal alien who did not have a right to be here and, at forty-five yrs. old, if he hadn’t already done so, I don’t believe he’d have been capable of turning his life around. Although neither men deserved to die in the way they did, it is completely absurd that Mr. Gongora’s family in Mexico should reap any financial benefit from his death.

    I’ve only been on this planet for seventy yrs., so what do I know. But it seems to me that this is an extraordinarily difficult time in the history of the world, although I know this has been said throughout time. In my opinion it’s high time we took care of our own. We cannot continue to take on the problems of the world. We cannot continue to fund other nations that are working at cross purposes, and sometimes against us, while the suffering of our own people goes unaddressed. We cannot continue to allow anyone into this country without knowing exactly who they are, where they come from and what their intentions are, particularly when they are preying on our own people; when we give those people a driver’s license and allow them to vote! We cannot continue to fund wars all over the world while massive numbers of our own people neither have roofs over their heads, nor food to eat.

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  2. I guess the family wasn’t too outraged when the man was alive, homeless and needing help. Odd priorities. And, from what I read, the cops did nothing wrong.

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  3. If only San Francisco didn’t have a corrupt DA instead of George Gascon, maybe, just maybe, one of the killer-cops would be freaking indicted for murder or at least manslaughter or something already.

    How many civilians have to die at the end of a bullet or more from the gun of an SFPD officer before Gascon brings charges?

    Very glad to read about this presser today at the church. Good report on what transpired.

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