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.