After District Attorney George Gascón announced, once again, that he won’t file charges in the officer-involved shooting of 29-year-old Jessica Williams, activists in the Bayview renewed their promise to hold the San Francisco Police Department accountable.
“With everything going on, with the fires, DACA and Trump, police brutality is on the back burner,” Phelicia Jones, who founded the Bayview group Wealth and Disparities in the Black Community — Justice 4 Mario Woods, said Thursday night. “But being a black American in the Bayview, we cannot afford to keep police brutality on the back burner.”
While no stranger to the history of police shootings in San Francisco and the district attorney’s record of absolving them, Jones was still surprised when Gascón made the announcement. Gascón had personally told Jones that, of all the officer-involved shootings his office was looking at, he had the best chance of filing charges in Williams’ case.
But in the end, Gascón declined to charge, finding that San Francisco Police Department Sgt. Justin Erb acted “objectively reasonably” when he shot Williams in the chest on a quiet street in Bayview 18 months ago.
Williams is one of 19 people killed by a San Francisco officer since 2011, and the 11th case the district attorney has closed without filing charges. The other eight are still open investigations — some entering their fourth year.
The SFPD’s second-quarter report shows that, across the city, the use of force has declined by 6 percent, but black males make up 32 percent — more than any other group — of incidents.
Max Szabo, a spokesperson for the district attorney, told Mission Local that Gascón’s office has prosecuted at least 19 law enforcement officers for various crimes, “including assault under color of authority and assault with a deadly weapon.”
“So the assertion that we fail to prosecute people based on their job title doesn’t stand up to scrutiny,” Szabo said.
“While use of force by police can be controversial, ultimately our review of these incidents will always be based on the facts and the law,” he said.
The 1989 Supreme Court ruling in Graham v. Conner set a particularly high legal bar for prosecuting a case against an officer who’s killed someone. As long as an officer can demonstrate that he or she had a reasonable fear that their life or the life of someone else was in danger, prosecutors are unlikely to file charges.
Justice 4 Mario Woods was founded in the wake of Mario Woods’ killing on Dec. 2, 2015. The district attorney’s office investigation into his killing is still open.
As she conducted the Justice 4 Mario Woods’ weekly meeting Thursday night in a bare-walled room that smelled of mothballs, Jones said the group was founded with three goals: to force former Police Chief Greg Suhr to resign; to get the SFPD to undergo an independent investigation; and for “killer cops to be jailed,” Jones said.
Suhr resigned the day after Jessica Williams was killed.
“We, as human beings, get mad, but a movement takes time,” Jones said to the gathering of about two dozen people.
Justice 4 Mario Woods and its allies have asked the California Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, to open a civil-rights investigation into the SFPD. Representatives from Justice 4 Mario Woods have met with Becerra twice this year, and are now asking him to hold a town hall meeting in Bayview.
Jones gave Becerra credit for engaging with her group.
The district attorney’s findings in the Williams case were based on eyewitness accounts of two police officers and one civilian.
Officers Erb and Eric Eastlund approached a car in which Jessica Williams was sleeping on the morning of May 16, 2016, according to the district attorney’s report. Erb had his pistol drawn and pointed at the ground. Williams was in a car that had been reported stolen.
When the officers knocked on her window, she sat up and sped off, but quickly crashed into a parked utility truck.
As the officers ran towards her, she reversed the car and then drove forward slowly, reportedly in the direction of Erb, who was on the sidewalk.
Erb reported that he believed his life was in danger, and fired a single shot at Williams, fatally hitting her in the chest.
As part of the district attorney’s investigation, they retained Lucien Haag, a recognized criminalist and firearms expert, who reconstructed the incident and determined that Erb was standing 17 to 18.5 feet in the front and to the left of Williams’ car when he fired.
“I’m flabbergasted that the DA is saying it is OK to shoot at a person who appears to have been fleeing in a car,” San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi said in a statement.
Since the killing, San Francisco Police Commission has changed SFPD’s use-of-force policy to prohibit shooting at moving vehicles — a move strongly opposed by the San Francisco Police Officers Association.
But the change to SFPD’s internal use-of-force policy will not affect how the district attorney’s office can assess whether an officer-involved shooting was a criminal act.
Adachi told Mission Local that he doesn’t think the policy reform is enough.
“Having a strong policy is good, but without accountability and consequences for officers who violate policy, any reform efforts will ring hollow,” he said.