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.
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.
year to date*
San Francisco police
have fatally shot three
people so far this year.
Chart by Will Jarrett. Data from SFPD.