Surveillance footage shows Nelson Szeto set down a knife, before pulling out what appeared to be another gun. Both guns turned out to be non-lethal replica guns.

During a much-anticipated town hall yesterday following the Jan. 20 police shooting at San Francisco International Airport, speakers avoided mentioning that Nelson Szeto had no deadly weapons in his possession when police shot and killed him.

The incident, which happens over the course of about 30 minutes, becomes chaotic and deadly in the final minutes as Szeto wanders into the vision of several officers. Many of the officers are urging him to “put the gun down” and, as Szeto slowly moves to the side, facing the officers, they open fire. Szeto falls. Officers still urge him to put the gun down, but continue to fire. 

In the days after the shooting, the SFPD came under fire for first saying Szeto was armed and then continuing to make the assertion, even after it became clear that investigators in the case knew early on that Szeto was carrying a replica airsoft gun when he was shot dead.

Over the course of a two-hour presentation yesterday, Commander Paul Yep showed six officers’ body-worn camera footage and airport surveillance video footage from various angles. Four of the officers discharged their rifles, and two others discharged foam projectiles from Extended Range Impact Weapons. 

Throughout the presentation, Yep referred to the two airsoft guns that Szeto held as “weapons” or “handguns.” Clearly, officers assumed the arms were real, and can be heard talking about which of Szeto’s hands held the gun. 

At one point, Szeto told officers to shoot him, Yep said, directing them to aim for his “center mass.” 

When several callers during public comment noted that the presentation made no mention of the fact that Szeto’s guns were not in fact firearms, even if officers at the time of his shooting couldn’t tell the difference, Chief Bill Scott insisted that the SFPD did not know that the guns were replicas, even after the shooting. 

“The San Francisco Police Department did not have control over any of the evidence, nor does it to this day,” Scott said. “We cannot put out information that we can’t confirm. And at the time of the incident, we could not confirm what type of weapon that was.” 

Since the airport is located in unincorporated San Mateo County, San Mateo District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe’s office was originally investigating the shooting, which took place around 8 a.m. on a Thursday. 

Wagstaffe said he was aware that Szeto’s guns were replicas that same morning of the shooting, the Chronicle reported. 

On the afternoon of Jan. 20, before 2 p.m., Commander Yep said the California Department of Justice took over the criminal investigation into the shooting. Assembly Bill 1506 requires the state Attorney General to investigate officer-involved shootings “resulting in the death of an unarmed civilian.” 

Meanwhile, SFPD public information officer Robert Rueca still told Mission Local later that afternoon that “the suspect had ‘at least one gun.’”  

At yesterday’s town hall, John Marsh, the chief of the state Department of Justice’s law enforcement division, did not acknowledge that Szeto was armed only with airsoft guns until directly asked to comment on the matter. When asked to confirm this, he did — but added that distinguishing between different types of guns is “not as easy as it seems.”

The entire interaction between Szeto and police was not caught on camera, as officers from the airport bureau, who were the initial responders, do not wear body-worn cameras. However, various surveillance cameras show Szeto pacing slowly in the airport terminal. 

Just before 8 a.m., about 30 minutes after airport bureau officers were first dispatched, specialist officers from the SFPD field and operations bureaus, who are outfitted with body-worn cameras, arrived, Yep said Monday. 

All SFPD airport bureau officers were trained members of the crisis intervention team, Yep said, but he did not confirm whether the specialist officers who later fired their weapons had similar training. He did say that specialist officers received “specialized tactical training for high-risk operations.” 

Szeto, 37, was acting strangely and pacing slowly among cordoned-off machinery and seen on video carrying a knife and what were later identified as  airsoft guns, but seemed somewhat cooperative with the hostage negotiator from the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department. 

The negotiator is heard coaxing Szeto to relinquish his weapons, and had successfully convinced Szeto to put down one of the two airsoft guns. All police officers appear to be acting under the presumption that Szeto’s guns were real. 

In an earlier video shot, Szeto is seen holding one gun and setting down his knife, but then he “reached inside his jacket and said, ‘I have another gun, and this one’s loaded,’” Yep said.  

Before the negotiator can get Szeto to put down his second gun, Szeto slowly begins stepping to the side, and an officer shoots a foam round at him. The situation then quickly escalates as more specialist officers shout commands and threaten to shoot, but also urge him to “put your gun down.”

Within another minute or two, several gunshots are heard, and it is difficult to distinguish who is firing the shots. 

In the crossfire, an unidentified bystander who was nearby was also shot in the leg. The entire interaction after the arrival of the specialist officers lasted about eight minutes. 

Several callers condemned the SFPD for failing to deescalate effectively, and asked Scott to no avail what could or should have been done to prevent Szeto’s death. 

A nurse who called in said, “it was obvious that [Szeto] needed help from people who are calmer and who really know how to deal with severe depression and other mental health crises … he needed some people to be calm, not to have all these guns pointing at him with people yelling.” 

Another caller pointed out that when Szeto complained that something was stuck in his throat, the negotiator responded dismissively and said, “Okay, no, there’s nothing stuck in your throat.” 

Scott confirmed that Szeto’s family was notified of his death. A friend of Szeto’s called to refute earlier reports that Szeto was a transient, saying he was a longtime resident of San Francisco who attended Galileo High School and was “loved by many.”  

“If one of us had been contacted, somehow, I believe the situation would have turned out differently,” the caller said. 

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REPORTER. Eleni is our reporter focused on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim over eight years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

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10 Comments

  1. The fact the guns weren’t real is irrelevant. If they look real, then police MUST treat them as real.

    Szeto chose to present himself as armed and dangerous.

  2. They are weapons in the absence of not knowing they are weapons. A guy with two guns and a knife AT THE AIRPORT is what SFPD saw.

    Sorry, as a member of the flying public, there wasn’t much wiggle room on this one. Blame San Francisco for not having better mental health intervention, not the responding officers.

    Unfortunate all around.

  3. Great article, this deadly incident should have been avoided. The airport relies 100 percent on SFPD with transient, homeless and persons experiencing mental health crisis. Staff and SFPD have been assaulted by persons suffering mental illness , drug addiction and homelessness. SFO is owned and operated the City and County of San Francisco and is a major profit center yet it has no intervention team, plan, policy and does not liaison with city departments such as the Department of Homelessness Supportive Housing (HSH) – Project Homeless Connect. Certainly SFO is ignoring it’s responsibility to the city residents and Airport staff by this oversite.

    1. SFO is a bloody airport and not an inner city district!
      Where on earth do you have an
      “intervention team, plan, policy and liaison with city departments such as the Department of Homelessness Supportive Housing (HSH) – Project Homeless Connect” at an airport???
      Only here in the US, in CA, in SF people think of such nonsense.
      the airport is an airport, such as a train station is a train station incl. BART and not a caretaking facility for homeless and mentally challenged people.

  4. How do you expect the police to tell the difference between a replica and a real gun? Ridiculous.

    This seems like tragic suicidal attempt.

  5. ‘Officers at the airport do not wear body cameras.’ Why not?? You wear a badge and you’re on duty, you should wear a camera. Period.

    ‘The negotiator is talking, and someone shoots a foam round and things escalate quickly.’ Really?? Who fired that first shot? WHY?? Isn’t the point of negotiating is to keep things calm??

    ‘Four officers shot their rifles.’ Cops are shooting Rifles indoors?? Crazy.

    1. Nothing calms a situation like firing non-lethal projectiles and screaming at the top of your lungs.

      The negotiator must’ve been bummed to have the others start shouting over the top of him. He was doing good.

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