The Department of Police Accountability has found that five officers who shot and killed Mario Woods in December 2015 all used “unnecessary force” — but ultimately concluded that the officers should receive no discipline, as they deviated from no policies at the time.
That is according to a report released Thursday by the Department of Police Accountability, the civilian oversight agency that conducted an independent investigation of the police shooting. Instead of finding that the officers’ use of deadly force on Woods was a result of misconduct, the DPA concluded that the shooting revealed wide-ranging lapses in the SFPD’s policy at the time.
“Arguably, the named officers’ conduct at the moment they used deadly force could be found in policy in light of the Department’s Use of Firearms policy that existed at the time of the incident,” the report states. “In fact, SFPD did find the officers’ conduct in policy. However, when considering the entire chain of events that led to the officers’ use of lethal force, the DPA concludes that the excessive force allegation is the result of a policy failure.”
In other words, the officers did not break any rules at the time, and the DPA had no grounds to recommend discipline.
The report explained that the police department did not have a codified de-escalation policy at the time of the incident. De-escalation, which the department implemented in December 2016, requires officers to use “time and distance” and “utilize cover” to diminish the likelihood of a tense situation where deadly force becomes more likely. Revised partly as a result of Woods’ killing, the policy also stresses proportional use of force and that officers exhaust all necessary alternatives before resorting to deadly force.
Since that policy went into effect, overall use-of-force incidents have dropped precipitously. Moreover, the SFPD has not fatally shot a civilian since March 2018.
Nevertheless, as part of its report on the Woods shooting, the DPA made 17 additional policy recommendations, many of them aimed at how police investigate and evaluate the shootings after they happen.
Read the Department of Police Accountability’s full report here.
For example, the DPA recommended that officers involved in a shooting be interviewed before they view their body-worn camera footage of the incident. It also recommended that, during their investigation of the shootings, higher-ups carefully factor in the phenomenon of “contagious fire,” a reference to multiple shots being fired. That happened in the case of Woods — when officers shot at him 27 times — and in the case of Jesus Delgado, who officers shot at 99 times in the Mission in 2018.
In addition to the findings of unnecessary force in the killing of Woods, the DPA concluded that the officers who earlier deployed “less-lethal” force on Woods — pepper spray and beanbag rounds — did not coordinate, resulting in the use of excessive force.
“It did not appear that there was any communication, coordination or plan as to whether or when to use less lethal force,” the report says.
Despite these failures, the DPA found that their conduct was “in policy,” as there was no established policy at the time for these officers to break. The DPA blamed the resulting excessive force on a “policy failure.”
“The DPA recommends that whenever less lethal force is used in conjunction with a deadly force incident, the officer-involved shooting review process should include a detailed analysis of whether the deployment of less lethal force is consistent with policy and training,” the report says.
Although the SFPD’s killing of Woods rocked San Francisco, prompting a U.S. Department of Justice review and changes in SFPD policy, there have been few consequences for the officers who shot him.
All five of the officers who shot woods — Charles August, Winson Seto, Nicholas Cuevas, Scott Phillips, Antonio Santos — remain with the SFPD, said police spokesman Officer Robert Rueca.
In addition, then-District Attorney George Gascón declined to file criminal charges against the officers in May 2018. And in June 2019, Gwen Woods, Mario’s mother, settled a lawsuit with the city for $400,000 — a settlement that may have been larger if a judge hadn’t granted the officers qualified immunity.
Reacting to the news, Nancy Pili, a Mission District police accountability activist, repeated an often-used chant: “If there are no consequences, there’s no confidence.”
“If you can execute a person with eight different officers surrounding him, and get away with it, then I have no confidence,” she said.
Without serious consequences for these officers, she added, the SFPD is “a beast with no reins.”
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