In an unprecedented move, San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott apologized profusely for the department’s May 7 shooting of an unarmed car burglary suspect in SoMa, saying it was accidental and, “quite simply, should not have happened.”
The chief delivered these remarks during a Thursday afternoon virtual town hall meeting. His command staff detailed the May 7 incident, in which an officer attempted to apprehend Xavier Pittman, Jr., whom police suspected of burglarizing five cars throughout the day. The arrest went awry, however, and Officer Zachary McAuliffe ended up shooting Pittman once, striking him on his left wrist. The chief said the shooting was “unintentional.”
“I am deeply sorry that Mr. Pittman was shot during this incident,” Scott said, using prepared remarks. “I’d like to take this opportunity to publicly apologize to Mr. Pittman, Jr., his family and friends.”
That sentiment was repeated some eight times by the chief throughout his remarks, including his conveying an apology on behalf of McAuliffe. “ … Officer McAuliffe asked me to convey how badly he feels that this happened,” the chief said. “He did not intend for his gun to go off.”
Close observers of policing in San Francisco said they don’t remember a chief apologizing immediately following a police shooting — ever.
“I have no recollection of this happening before,” said John Crew, a retired ACLU attorney who has closely observed the San Francisco police department for four decades. “It’s been so historically ingrained in the culture that you never apologize for anything.”
Crew explained that the SFPD’s do-no-wrong posture has been, ultimately, self-destructive.
“Not apologizing is putting yourself in a position of destroying any opportunity for genuine partnerships with the communities that the department claims to serve,” Crew said, adding that not apologizing for mistakes and obvious wrongdoing has also worked against the police department’s ability to look inward and make improvements.
To be sure, Scott has made public apologies — notably to the family of Mario Woods, whom five officers shot and killed in December, 2015. “If we mess up, we need to say we’re sorry … we’ll fix it,” he said during a March, 2017, town hall. The chief also apologized in May, 2019, after SFPD officers raided the home of cable news stringer Bryan Carmody, taking a sledgehammer to his front gate to search for evidence into who leaked a police report on the death of Public Defender Jeff Adachi.
But Scott and other chiefs have not done the same in the immediate aftermath of a police shooting.
“To me, it’s a breath of fresh air,” said Adante Pointer, an attorney who has litigated numerous civil-rights lawsuits against the SFPD and who is representing Pittman. “It serves as a model, if you will, for how police departments and law enforcement agencies should respond in a situation when they may have unlawfully or unnecessarily harmed or killed someone.”
But Pointer added that, while the apology is welcome, it is not enough. “What’s just as important as [an apology] is that other branches of city bureaucracy respond in kind,” he said.
For Pointer, that means McAuliffe should be disciplined. The District Attorney, who is taking the lead on the police shooting investigation, “should be taking a close look.” And the City Attorney, which is notorious among local civil rights attorneys for a scorched-earth litigation strategy against lawsuits alleging police misconduct, “should not force a victim to fight in courts for three years in order to receive civil justice or compensation.”
Pointer said Pittman plans to file a claim against the city for the shooting, adding: “Then we’ll file a lawsuit if we have to.”
The May 7 incident was a chaotic episode that played out on Varney Place, a street tucked away between Jack London Alley and Third Street in SoMa. Police had received reports that drivers of the same silver Mitsubishi SUV had been burglarizing cars throughout the city all day — five total — at one point allegedly evading U.S. Park Police in the Presidio, police said.
Surveillance video on Varney Place shows Pittman and another person unloading a pile of items onto the street when two plainclothes officers rush them with their guns drawn. One officer, McAuliffe, grabs Pittman, and within seconds they both fall on the ground. It is then that police say McAuliffe shot Pittman once in his wrist. It’s unclear precisely how the shooting occurred.
After the shooting, the Mitsubishi speeds away, crashes into a car, and drives northbound onto Third Street, according to surveillance footage of the incident. Meanwhile, Pittman can be heard repeatedly saying, “I’m bleeding” and “I’m dying.”
Pittman was transported to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, police said.
While the chief apologized for the shooting, Pittman is nonetheless accused of numerous crimes, including five counts of auto burglary, five counts of conspiracy, and one count of possession of stolen property, all felonies.
Separate investigations into McAuliffe’s shooting of Pittman are being conducted by the SFPD’s Internal Affairs Division and the Department of Police Accountability. As the lead investigator, the District Attorney is looking into whether McAuliffe committed a crime.
Since November, the DA’s office has initiated charges against three SFPD officers for shootings and excessive force, including former rookie officer Christopher Samaoya, who shot and killed carjacking suspect Keita O’Neil in the Bayview in December, 2017.
When asked for comment on the Pittman shooting, DA spokeswoman Rachel Marshall said, “Pursuant to our policy, we always investigate all officer-involved shootings, and we are doing so here.”