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.