San Francisco police officers got the call at 11:35 p.m. on Saturday — there was a domestic disturbance, possibly a weapon. They arrived at the Russian Hill apartment to hear Damian Murray threatening his wife and two children with a gun. For three hours, crisis negotiators worked to calm Murray. And then, in quick succession, a gunshot fired from within the apartment, officers broke down the door and one of four shots hit Murray. He died in the hospital later that night.
The officer-involved shooting triggered five investigations, but if the past is an indicator, it will take at least 22 months to complete any of them — a time frame a San Francisco Civil Grand Jury called “unacceptable.” The 2016 Department of Justice report agreed, noting that only one officer-involved shooting case had been closed from the period between 2013 and 2015.
“It is unacceptable for officer-involved shootings to remain open for years,” the report stated and recommended the department establish a process that would result in “timely, transparent and factual outcomes for officer-involved shooting incidents.”
That, however, has yet to happen.
“In terms of best practices, the reality is that there’s a lot of concerns,” said Max Szabo, a spokesperson for the District Attorney’s office, which handles one of the five investigations. The others include two at the SFPD — one by Internal Affairs and the other by the Homicide Detail — a fourth by the Department of Police Accountability and a fifth by the Medical Examiner’s Office.
In a response to the Civil Grand Jury’s report, the Police Commission wrote that the suggested timelines of specific investigation-related events — 30, 60 and 90 days — were unrealistic given the complexity of the laws and statutes governing investigations. The commission, however, thanked members of the Civil Grand Jury “for their efforts to improve the timeliness and transparency of OIS investigations.”
John Crew, an ACLU attorney and former head of the Northern California Police Practices Project, said the SFPD unfairly hides behind laws and statutes, and that the problem is not legal, but cultural.
“They say there’s state confidentiality laws,” Crew said referring to the delays. “Well, Los Angeles is in the same state.”
And, as it turns out, Los Angeles finishes its investigations considerably faster — a fact that could bode well for San Francisco, since Police Chief Bill Scott, who took over the SFPD in January, comes from that culture.
Officer involved Shootings — one in San Francisco and one in Los Angeles
Take the investigations that followed the police shooting of Luis Demetrio Gongora Pat in San Francisco and Cesar Frias in Los Angeles.
A homeless 45-year-old unemployed restaurant worker from Yucatan, Gongora was shot and killed by police officers on April 7, 2016. The officers said Gongora “charged” at them with a knife, while six eyewitnesses disagreed. Despite numerous calls for expediency and nationwide attention, 18 months later, the various investigations are still underway.
The day before Gongora was shot in San Francisco, Los Angeles officers shot and killed Cesar Frias, a 20-year-old mentally disturbed man. The shooting immediately prompted three investigations, including inquiries by the LAPD’s Force Investigation Division, the Office of the Inspector General and the L.A. County District Attorney’s Justice System Integrity Division shooting team.
Twelve months later, the L.A. Board of Police Commissioners prepared and adjudicated a detailed report on the incident and published it on their website.
It contained a detailed 20-page summary of the standoff, which lasted seven hours and ended when Frias ran toward the team of SWAT officers clutching a pair of scissors.
The timeline of this investigation aligns with the LAPD’s other investigations into officer-involved shootings from 2016. Captain Patricia Sandoval, a commanding officer in media relations for the LAPD, said that their investigations take a year at most.
Merrick Bobb, president and co-executive director of the Police Assessment Resource Center, has been involved with the LAPD since the Justice Department stepped in after the Rodney King riots in 1992. Since then, he says, the LAPD’s relationship to officer-involved shootings has improved substantially. When it comes to transparency, he said, “LA’s one of the best.”
San Francisco police officers say that their investigations take a long time because of the number of overlapping investigations.
“Each investigation is on its own timeline,” says Captain Paul Yep, who oversees the station patrolling the Russian Hill area where Sunday’s shooting occurred. “There’s a lot of protocol and variations.”
For his part, Crew believes the culture of lack of openness and accountability isn’t entirely SFPD’s fault. “If no one’s making them do it, if the Police Commission and Board of Supervisors aren’t making them do it, if press and public aren’t making them do it … ”
“They should still do it, but the culture exists because there hasn’t been political will to force them to change.”