Two San Francisco Police officers shot 21-year-old Cesar Antonio Vargas four times as Vargas ran toward them holding a knife at his side, body-camera footage released Monday at a virtual town hall meeting showed. It was the first fatal police shooting in San Francisco in more than two years.
The footage was one of many pieces of evidence the police department presented during its Monday meeting to make the case that its shooting and killing of Vargas was justified. Meanwhile, police critics said the officers could have done more to de-escalate the situation.
According to the police, the incident began around 11:25 p.m. on Oct. 10 at Valencia and Market streets. Surveillance footage and witnesses observed Vargas open a car door and immediately close it. Vargas then allegedly approached a Prius stopped in traffic on Market Street, jumped on its windshield, and then opened the driver’s side door, according to surveillance footage police showed at the meeting. He then allegedly held a knife to the driver’s face and pulled her from the vehicle.
Surveillance footage showed a man, allegedly Vargas, get into the Prius, but it only rolled several feet before he popped out and ran east on Market toward Gough Street.
Vargas walked past a Muni bus and pushed a disembarking passenger as he walked by, according to Muni bus footage. Moving south on Gough, Vargas allegedly attempted to make contact with another person in a car, but was deterred by a bystander, according to a recording of a 911 call placed by the bystander.
Responding to at least four emergency calls, Officers Kyle Roach and Nicholas Delgado arrived at the scene of the apparent car-jacking of the Prius. They spoke to several witnesses, who pointed them in Vargas’ direction.
The officers quickly caught up to him on Otis Street between Gough and Brady streets. They exited their patrol car, pointed their guns at Vargas and told him to show his hands and drop a knife he was allegedly carrying. The body camera footage shows Vargas carrying an object resembling the knife police subsequently found at the scene.
After about 15 seconds of officers ordering Vargas to show his hands, Vargas removed his sunglasses, threw them to the ground, and ran toward Delgado, the body camera footage showed.
Although it’s difficult to hear in the video, police allege that Vargas yelled, “Bitch, I’ll kill ya,” as he ran toward Delgado. But Vargas never raised the knife at the officer as he sprinted toward Delgado.
Vargas was less than 10 feet away from Delgado when the officers began shooting.
Both of the officers’ body camera footage then shows Delgado and Roach collectively shoot Vargas four times. Vargas falls prone to the ground and moans. He then becomes unresponsive, as officers handcuff him and attempt to provide medical aid.
Delgado and Roach are currently on administrative leave, police said.
San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott reminded the town hall’s attendees that five concurrent investigations of this shooting are in their early stages. Those are being conducted by the District Attorney, the SFPD’s Internal Affairs Division, the SFPD’s Investigative Services Detail, the Department of Police Accountability, and the Medical Examiner.
Scott said that “video recordings provide a limited perspective.”
“In fact, there are many other factors to consider, including witness statements, physical evidence, forensic analysis, to name a few,” he said.
Several town hall participants supported the police officers’ shooting and killing of Vargas. “This is a clear thing,” said one woman who called into the meeting to comment. “If someone was running at me with a blade, I would 100 percent protect myself.”
The woman said the killing was “totally justified.”
But some observers expressed anger and disappointment at the shooting, painting it as another example of why American policing requires fundamental change. “The video that I saw was distressing,” said a man who identified himself as a resident of SoMa. “Vargas should not have come at the police officer like that, but the police officers should not have killed him.”
“It’s crazy that we’re living in a system where some of us are looking at this and saying it’s okay that they shot him because he was” apparently committing crimes, the resident continued. “You look at other countries and they don’t have this problem. You can see videos of police just de-escalating that exact same situation without violence.”
The last fatal SFPD shooting was of Jehad Eid in March, 2018, in an Excelsior barber shop during a shootout between the 21-year-old and police. Earlier that month, police shot and killed Jesus Delgado on Capp Street after Delgado shot once at the officers. They fired back 99 times, ending an interaction that lasted all of six minutes.
However, the SFPD has successfully de-escalated tense situations. In July, 2020, the SFPD engaged in an eight-hour standoff with a Vietnam veteran carrying a metal pole on 18th Street, eventually disarming him. The man was subsequently taken to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.
Adriana Camarena, a police reform activist who advocated for the family of Luis Gongora Pat — a homeless Mexican immigrant whom officers shot and killed in the Mission in April 2016 — suggested the tactics of the July incident could have been used with Vargas.
The evidence police presented showed that Vargas was having a crisis, she said, and police should have done more.
“What did the officers do to de-escalate the situation other than rush this individual?” she said. “Were there any other situations in which a perimeter was created and which some sort of containment was happening? Did these officers make a plan to de-escalate? Because I didn’t see any.”