An officer points his weapon at Michael MacFhionghain and Rafael Mendoza as they struggle on the ground beneath I-280.

At a virtual Town Hall meeting on Friday, the San Francisco Police Department offered little explanation for why four officers last week opened fire on two middle-aged homeless men who were prone and wrestling slowly on the ground, as one threatened the other with a knife. 

Police Chief Bill Scott said the investigation was still in its early stages. 

Commander Paul Yep, who narrated the sequence of events at Friday’s meeting, said “a series of aggravated assaults” led to the shootings. 

During the three-hour meeting, Yep showed 11 videos from officers’ body-worn cameras, an additional mobile-phone video taken by a witness, and photographs of the scene on May 19. He also played the audio from the 911 call that sent officers to the scene under the I-280 freeway at Owens and Mariposa streets.

Owens St.

SoMa

Mission

Bay

Mariposa Park

Mariposa St.

Shots fired

beneath

the overpass

Interstate 280

Potrero Hill

Mission

Dogpatch

Owens St.

Mariposa Park

Mariposa St.

Shots fired

beneath

the overpass

Interstate 280

Mission

Potrero Hill

Map by Will Jarrett. Basemap from Mapbox.

Through most of the footage, which showed the same scene from different angles, Michael MacFiohnghain, 57, is laying on his side holding a knife over 49-year-old Rafael Mendoza who, at times, calls out that he can’t breathe.

The scene is both chaotic and stagnant, with a rush of officers bearing arms and equipment arriving and surrounding the two victims. The men remain in relatively the same position on the ground between the time the officers appear and the time, 10 minutes later, when four cops open fire. 

In a 911 call made at 7:48.p.m on May 19, a woman reported seeing one man with a baton “beating the crap out of what looks like a shelter where someone was living.” Video footage shows shadows of the man beating at a tarp with a figure underneath.

The first officers arrived at the scene at 8:01 p.m., according to Yep.

When the officers arrived, Mendoza and MacFiohnghain were on the ground. MacFiohnghain lay on his side, holding a knife over Mendoza, while officers attempted to get MacFiohnghain to drop the weapon. 

“Both subjects were lying next to each other on the ground in an active physical struggle involving a knife,” said Yep. “ Mr. MacFiohnghain held a knife in his right hand with the blade pointed downward over Mr. Mendoza.” 

The latter, “used his right hand to hold on to the right wrist of MacFiohnghain. As the officers approached the subjects, Mr. Mendoza told the officers, quote, ‘He got me right there and I can’t breathe.’” 

MacFiohnghain told officers that Mendoza had been attacking him. 

Footage from 11 different officer body-worn cameras show officers aiming less-lethal weapons at the men, while one of the officers negotiates with MacFiohnghain, trying to convince him that all will be settled if he drops the knife. 

“I need you to drop the knife so we can sort this out, okay? We’re not gonna shoot you.”

Another officer responds with, “Drop the knife or we will shoot.”

More than nine officers surround both men with weapons drawn, shields posted and pepper spray equipped. Officers repeatedly tell MacFiohnghain to drop the knife, following up with a shot from a foam baton weapon. 

MacFiohnghain and Mendoza continue laying on the ground in the same position, while another officer sprays MacFiohnghain with pepper spray.

Also in the footage, an officer recognizes Mendoza and mentions that he doesn’t speak English.

“We just booked him two weeks ago. He’s Cuban.”

Officers initially believed Mendoza had a knife, but later they said MacFiohnghain had two knives. “Left side has two of them, hit him again,” said one of the officers. Three knives were found at the scene. 

“This is why we show all the videos, because it shows perspectives of different officers,” said Scott. He also said that the California Department of Justice is still investigating which knives were used, and how.

Minutes before officers opened fire, one officer yelled, “drop the knife!” yet again, while another said to the officers surrounding the men, “there are too many guns, there’s too many.” He asked the officers to step back.

The officers, however, stayed put with their weapons drawn, watching both men struggle on the ground.

At approximately 8:10 p.m. after a roughly nine-minute struggle, MacFiohnghain suddenly climbed over the top of Mendoza and brought “the knife point downward towards Mr. Mendoza’s upper body,” Yep said. 

Shouts from the officers overlapped and began to mix as officers fired two more less-lethal rounds. “Within seconds, MacFiohnghain again brought the knife point up and then downward towards Mr. Mendoza in a stabbing motion at least two times while officers continued to give commands to drop the knife.”

As MacFiohnghain apparently appeared ready to act, four officers opened fire. Three officers discharged their department issued handguns. A fourth fired a rifle. 

Yep said that the investigations team found 11 pistol casings and one rifle casing at the scene.

While the smoke was still clearing, one officer mumbled “this is bullshit,” while another calmed one of the officers who fired shots.

MacFhionghain fell from Mendoza’s body while officers dragged both men along the ground. 

“Make sure he doesn’t have anything else on him,” an officer said while handcuffing MacFhionghain, before giving aid.

MacFhionghain died at the scene. Mendoza was taken to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, where he later died.

A report from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner sent to Mission Local on Wednesday reported that both men died from gunshot wounds, and the report characterized both deaths as homicides.

Some two dozen members of the public called into the remote community meeting, and many raised questions as to why the officers could not defuse a situation with two men on the ground.

”I’m trying to understand five other officers screaming at these men,” said one commenter, who questioned whether the de-escalation had been adequate. Another commenter, Susan Bachman, said that in other instances, officers had had to make split-second decisions, but in this case, the action on the ground unfolded slowly. 

“In this one you had time, you had distance, you had an officer attempting to make rapport with at least one of the gentlemen,” she said, trying to puzzle out why officers had opened fire so quickly. 

“The inability or unwillingness of police to de-escalate harmful situations remains a paramount concern for public safety in San Francisco,” said Public Defender Mano Raju in a press release. Mendoza was a client of the Public Defender’s office. “Mr. Mendoza lived his life on the margins of society without having his basic needs met, but he still had rights.”

Police shootings are investigated by the police, the District Attorney, the Department of Police Accountability, the Chief Medical Examiner and, now, the state. The Attorney General’s office is the lead investigator in this matter.

It was the city’s second officer-involved shooting this year.

San Francisco police have fatally

shot three people so far this year.

Officer-involved shootings

Fatal

Non-fatal

9

8

7

6

5

4

3

2

1

0

’11

’12

’13

’15

’16

’17

’19

’22*

’14

’18

’20

’21

Year

year to date*

San Francisco police

have fatally shot three

people so far this year.

Fatal

Non-fatal

2011

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

2020

2021

2022*

0

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

Officer-involved shootings

Chart by Will Jarrett. Data from SFPD.

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Intern Reporter. William moved to the Bay Area from Nashville to pursue a Masters in Journalism from UC Berkeley. He's covered police reform in Oakland and also investigates correctional officer misconduct at the Investigative Reporting Program. You'll mostly see him behind a camera. Follow him on Twitter @WilliamJenk_

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  1. Very poor form to write a letter before having all City Attny determinations in writing. That said, it can take months to get such a determination (CAO is very cautious), and so a more “correct” fallout of increasingly complex and changing regulations, with hyper-scrutiny on any acceptances, is just to stay silent: don’t ask and don’t accept. That’s honestly the best way for a department head to protect themselves (although not good for whatever “good” they are trying to bring to the City). FWIW, I’ve heard thru the grapevine of several supervisors (in past years) asking for donations for their pet nonprofits. My guess is that these probably were not requested as direct payoffs, but still. Since it’s all grey, my guess is most City players will just abstain from fundraising in future, out of self preservation. Hope folks in the private sector pick up the slack…

      1. A lot to unpack here. But I’ll try to keep it short.

        Escalation of force was followed. 40mm non lethal and a bean bag projectile, with oc spray. 3 shots, one spray 4 failed non Lethal attempts.

        The man took those without flinching or screaming or any indication it was effective. They hurt, bad. Medication/Drugs or something going on upstairs are the only times there’s no reaction. Sometimes clothing and body weight too but regardless

        Tasers are 40-50% successful when deployed properly on a coherent suspect. This guy just took the above methods like it was a breath. 50% is a bad gamble. He also advanced position and was putting his weight behind the knife, Mendoza couldn’t hold that off for long and if an officer attempted to tackle or jump on, officer could get stabbed, Mendoza the other homeless guy etc.

        But where it falls apart is, too many commands, any training, one person is commands, and the officer with the best chance to not strike the victim with a round is the one who is to draw down, there was an officer basically point blank. 4 shooters 3 of which were panic shootings. One had such a bad angle that a round hit Mendoza. All of this is in vein but had it worked and Mendoza wasn’t harmed, this wouldn’t be an article.

        If someone is close to killing someone, and options of a lower level have failed, or the suspects behavior and the sequence of events in the situation drastically advance past non lethal force having a good chance, lethal force is necessary.

        It only takes one stupid officer to panic shoot and get over zealous with commands over others giving commands already to make everyone involved look like crap. In this case, it led to a death they were trying to avoid anyway.

  2. From watching g the video it seems there was so much time to do other things besides kill both men: (1) Taser the guy with the knife (oops, progressives have forbidden SFPD from carrying and using tasers). That would have been the best and most effective option for ending the threat without killing anyone. Again, unintended consequences of progressives’ idealistic policies . (2) any one or 2 of those officers could have easily grabbed the man’s hand to control the knife instead of standing around with a gun. 11 shots? Come on guys.

    1. @Pat – I agree tasers would have been handy in this situation, but it’s a bit of an anomaly that a perpetrator is laying prone. There are other scenarios to consider.

      Also agree taking that knife would have been like taking candy from a baby. The cops had hands within two feet when they sprayed the mace.

    2. SFPD aren’t allowed to use tasers. Apparently it’s something the citizens of San Francisco voted for.

  3. Does SFPD have batons? I know due to police abuse, beating the hell out of people, they were discouraged back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, but do they carry anything like that?

    I sometimes wonder if people weren’t safer in general back when cops didn’t have tasers and had training and permission to use a baton

  4. When cops use deadly violence as a first resort, along with brutality against civilians that is the stock and trade of the US military, then people take those signals from authority figures in power as to what are acceptable ways to resolve conflicts.

  5. Poorly led,

    We need to elect a police chief.

    One who answers to us and not the POA or Mayor.

    It is both standard and unwritten practice for cops all over the country to cover for one another in a situation like this.

    If one shoots, they all shoot to muddy the investigation.

    Not my idea but a great one is to stop letting department hire recruits and turn the job over to insurance companies.

    Cops have to have at least a million buck policy and no insurer is gonna insure these gun happy lateral transfer underground cop railroad thugs SF loves to shelter.

    Two of the cops who shot Mario Woods had shot other suspects while employed at different jurisdictions.

    No insurance company would have hired them.

    Go Warriors !

    h.

  6. WTF? Cops couldn’t use a taser? Baton to knock the knife out of the guys hand?
    How’s murdering them solving anything? Those cops need to find another job that doesn’t involve murdering civilians.

    1. The people you or your friends/family voted for voted to make tasers illegal for SFPD to have. People vote to take away the non-lethal tools that help de-escalate situations under the guise of “police brutality”. You keep taking away non-lethal options, what does that leave?

      WhY DIdN’T THey de-EscaLAtE thE SiTuatiOn??

  7. At what point will San Franciscans decide that browbeating the cops instead of wondering why the city’s huge money investments into purported community centered rehab and violence reduction nonprofits seem to yield little result? Will Mission Local do an investigation of which pretrial programs the poor victims were supposed to be engaging with to reduce their exposure to police?

  8. This incident merits an investigation but why do all your articles essentially presume the officers are guilty? If they were career criminals you would give them the presumption of innocence. The level of insanity on display here is shown by the fact the one man was still determined to murder his adversary even when surrounded by police.

    1. Mike: There is no assumption of guilt. We actually have two of us watch the videos and listen to the town hall – and then we rewatch and write to give a fair accounting of what we’ve seen and what has been said. Best, Lydia

      1. Lydia . . . did you two watch the same town hall I did? I heard commenters critical of the police and commenters praising the police. Yet in this article you only mention and quote commenters that were critical of the police. It is that of decision that Mike is referring to.

        1. How could anyone possibly praise the Police’s actions after watching this video? LOL SMH

  9. “We booked him two weeks ago…”. Pretty much sums it up right there. If these goons were kept off the streets the police wouldn’t have to be out in situations like this! Thanks Chesa.

  10. Similar thoughts here like R LE. Total no-no disproportionate use of force. “100% amateur hour” is putting it nicely. This is not the first time a crew of SFPD LEOs proceeded to unload on somebody they’d encircled. Remember the Mario Woods case? Rhetorical question: What did the SFPD learn?

  11. There were more shots fired (17?) than there were shell casings found. Is that really something SFPD can’t figure out every time they open up like a firing squad? Because it’s a pattern.

    I don’t know how anyone but Tracy McCray could spin this as anything but a shit show. 100% amateur hour. It didn’t even seem real.

    2:14:25. Yesss.