The San Francisco City Attorney’s office said on Thursday that two San Francisco police officers lawfully killed Luis Gongora Pat, a Guatemalan immigrant, when they confronted him earlier this year in the Shotwell Street homeless encampment where he lived.
The statement from City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s office came in response to Gongora Pat’s family who filed a lawsuit two months ago naming the city and the two officers who were involved in the shooting. In its response, the city attorney said the officers acted with legitimate concern for their lives.
“I think the message here from the City Attorney is, ‘We won’t settle’– but that’s fine with us,”said writer and neighborhood activist Adriana Camarena, who is a member of the Justice for Luis Gongora Pat Coalition, formed to seek police accountability in the shooting.
The coalition’s objective, said Camarena, is to set a precedent in changing the prevailing police narrative in police shooting cases – that officers acted in self defense– by demonstrating officer wrongdoing with evidence.
“Officers will always argue that there was a threat,” she said.
The city attorney’s lawyers are seeking dismissal of the lawsuit, and on Thursday asked the court for a jury trial should the lawsuit move forward. But activists with the coalition say that they welcome a jury trial.
“The strategy of the City Attorney is, ‘If you don’t dismiss the case we will go to trial –First, that’s the expectation that family has when they sue,” said Camarena, adding that “many of these cases settle.”
Gongora Pat, 45, was armed with a 13-inch kitchen knife and allegedly charged at Sgt. Nate Steger and Officer Michael Mellone, former Police Chief Greg Suhr told media immediately after the fatal encounter on April 7.
Surveillance video footage from a nearby office building captured the incident – although Gongora Pat is not visible in the frame – showing that officers approached Gongora Pat and then shot at him in an interaction that played out in less than 30 seconds.
Some eight witnesses came forward after the incident – some nearby residents and other homeless campers who lived in the Shotwell Street encampment – to challenge the police narrative that Gongora Pat posed a threat to the officers. They said Gongora Pat was sitting on the sidewalk, his knife tucked away in his waistband.
Gongora Pat was of Mayan descent and monolingual. Activists have pointed out that he likely did not understand the officers’ commands in English to drop his knife – yelling “Get on the ground” repeatedly in the seconds before they dispensed a round of non-lethal bean bag bullets, followed by seven gunshots.
Those accounts were dismissed by lawyers from City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s office.
For their part, Camarena and other activists responded on their website to some of the facts that have already emerged in the case, specifically autopsy results showing the bullets entered Gongora Pat’s body from behind.
“It seems that all initial shots fired hit him in the back. This coincides with witness statements that state that he was not lunging officers but trying to shield himself by turning his back to officers,” the coalition posted in a statement in response to the Chronicle story.
“Then you have this execution style shot and video supports this theory,” said Camarena.
An autopsy report released in September showed that Gongora Pat was shot in the head, chest, arm, and upper back. He was struck in the head by a bullet entered his left forehead and traveled downward before exiting above his left ear, indicating that Gongora Pat was shot while subdued on the ground, said Camarena.
The autopsy also conveyed that Gongora Pat tested positive for methamphetamine – the city attorney’s office attributed the man’s drug use to what officers had first described as “erratic behavior.”
Camarena said that media coverage referring to Gongora Pat’s status as a homeless man further perpetuates the police narrative by dehumanizing the father of three.
“He was a family man, a brother, a son, a father who was lost but loved by his family and the Shotwell Street campers,” she said. “Our principle objective [with the lawsuit] is to make people understand this.”