From left to right: Ron Brownstein, Chief Bill Scott, Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, Public Defender Jeff Adachi, and District Attorney George Gascon. Photo by Julian Mark

San Francisco’s four top law-enforcement officials took the stage on Friday and chewed over the question of police violence and whether officers should be criminally charged after shooting civilians.

The somewhat rare grouping featured San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott, District Attorney George Gascón, Public Defender Jeff Adachi and Sheriff Vicki Hennessy. The event was hosted by the Atlantic at the Commonwealth Club and featured a wide range of topics under the aegis of “race and justice” in the Bay Area.

The discussion among the four faces of San Francisco’s criminal justice system remained cordial from beginning to end, but definitely grew tense at times, particularly when talking about whether cops should be criminally indicted following police shootings.

The moderator, Ron Brownstein of the Atlantic, asked each speaker for his or her views on the current system for evaluating and deciding on charges in controversial police shootings.

Adachi went first and immediately said the system is “broken.”

“How could you not prosecute the officers who shot and assassinated Mario Woods?” he said to big applause. “Look at the cases that have piled up — one after the other.”

To his left, Gascón sat, expressionless. In May, his office announced it would bring no charges against the five officers who shot Woods 15 times in the Bayview in 2015, as well as the two officers who shot and killed Luis Gongora, a homeless Mexican immigrant, in the Mission District in 2016.

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Since the shooting, Gascón’s perceived inaction has spurred protests at his public events and even outside of his house. On Thursday, he was granted a restraining order against one protester.

Adachi went further. “The idea that we’re not going to hold officers accountable … when the citizens hear about that and see it, people become outraged,” he said. “If it were you or I, we’d be arrested and locked up within a matter of hours.”

Scott was given the same question, and agreed the “system does need to be improved.” But he vented about what he feels can be a lot of misinformation about incidents. “Soundbites flash across the news and people make judgments about these cases without having any information,” he said.

When a prosecutor or a police chief evaluates such cases, Scott continued, they do so “based on the facts.”

“And often times, what gets out in the news is not factual — it’s spin … innuendo, speculation. That’s not evidence,” he said. “That’s a problem in our society, and it’s really skewed this issue to an unacceptable level. Because it’s not fair for anyone.”

Gascón then jumped in and agreed that the “system needed to be changed,” noting that officers and civilians are held to a different standard. He mentioned the now-dead piece of legislation — AB 931 — that would have made it less permissible for cops to use deadly force.  

“But what I find troubling — especially from trained attorneys who may not understand the law or who don’t look at the facts of the cases — is [the accusation that] prosecutors doing their work in earnest are not doing their jobs,” Gascón said, clearly pushing back at his counterpart, Adachi.  

Gascón repeated what almost all prosecutors in America say when confronted with the question of charging officers with murder: The law is designed to render it extremely difficult to charge an officer.  

“When you have an incident when a police officer believes he or she is threatened and you have someone who has committed a preceding crime,” he said, “it is very difficult to go through the standard of the law … prove these cases or even do a case that will stand the scrutiny of a preliminary hearing.”

Hennessy said she was thankful the Sheriff’s Department has not had an officer-involved shooting in recent years. “There’s a method of training officers that promotes that kind of conduct,” she said. “That’s something the chief here is addressing and that I’m trying to address — but nationwide, there needs to be another look about how we train officers.”

During a final moment, Adachi asserted that following the Woods incident, no law enforcement official stepped up to say it was wrong.

Gascón pounced. “That’s incorrect,” he said. “I said it was unethical.”  

Before the quibbling escalated, the officials were whisked off the stage.

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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  1. Good coverage Julian.

    Gascon actually referred to the Mario Woods shooting as “morally wrong.” It’s hard to decipher because he was interrupted, but he goes on to say it was “lawful,” and then, in a tone that dismisses accountability, concludes that “we have to change the law.” 1:29:30

    That may be technically true regarding Mario Woods, but it’s bullshit regarding Amilcar Perez-Lopez. Gascon should’ve delivered that one to the court system instead of once again dropping his go to line. “We have to change the law” doesn’t pass muster on that one.

  2. Scott said, backed up by Gascon, “When a prosecutor or a police chief evaluates such cases, Scott continued, they do so “based on the facts.
    And oftentimes what gets out in the news is not factual — it’s spin … innuendo, speculation. That’s not evidence,” he said.

    Precisely the “investigation” which occurred after the murder of Amilcar Perez-Lopez. To refresh memories, Perez Lopez was shot in the back as he was running away from police. The knife he had been carrying was far from the body. Whatever else might have been on the scene was cleaned up by the cops before D.A.’s team got there. After what, two or three years? “investigation” Gascon refused to prosecute because the cop said he feared for his life. But why did the cop fear for his life when Perez Lopez was running away from him, without a knife in his hand? After two or three years, the DA finally found the answer to that question when he got an “expert” to conclude that Perez Lopez was actually running toward the cop when the cop fired, but turned suddenly turned and ran the other way before the bullet could reach him. To buttress their case, the expert and the prosecutor paid for a clever little animation that says it all. Nothing but “fact based evidence”. Gascon played the role of defense attorney. The animation was never “tested” in court and the “expert” never had top testify under penalty of perjury. So in Gascon-world, an animation becomes insurmountable factual evidence. Check it out at Nice job George. Go back to LA so you won’t have to put up with those nasty people outside your door. Turn your back on them.

  3. One glaring omission here that can’t be overstated: where was the President of the SFPOA? The Commonwealth Club dropped the ball on this big time. I give the SFPOA far more credence than any of the other speakers. I have no opinion of the chief but let’s face it – he’s a political appointee and beholden to City Hall. Here today, gone tomorrow. Hennessy is an elected official and infinitely better than the in-over-his-head clown Mirk but it’s well known the voters of San Fran demand a certain left-leaning in their elected officials. Adachi is an obvious cop hater and once again will do and say what it takes to stay in office. I give Gascon credit for defending officers involved in shootings but he was part and parcel of many of the ills of this city – think prop 47 and the rampant, nothing short of out of control crime. He will not be missed. I’d be very interested to know if the SFPOA was invited and if not, why not?