The San Francisco Police Department on May 19 shot and killed two men, 57-year-old Michael MacFhionghain and 49-year-old Rafael Mendoza, as they grappled in the dirt and filth beneath I-280.
It was an agonizing and chaotic affair. Calls reporting a violent altercation between two unhoused men directed the police to a spot under the highway, where they found MacFhionghain wielding a knife and atop Mendoza. Mendoza was clutching MacFhionghain’s wrist in an attempt to stave off the knife; a San Francisco police officer later told Mission Local that the image could have been the accompanying illustration for the dictionary definition of “attempted murder.”
The men essentially held this awkward pose for nearly 10 minutes.
Police attempts to reason with MacFhionghain and convince him to drop the knife were not successful; earnest and straightforward communication by a single officer was soon overwhelmed by a multitude of armed men barking orders. Escalating uses of non-lethal force — beanbag projectiles, pepper spray — were not successful. MacFhionghain was not behaving rationally in the face of a phalanx of cops with guns, and that cacophony of officers bellowing at him and threatening to shoot him was not an ideal way to de-escalate a situation.
After an extended standoff, MacFhionghain began moving aggressively against Mendoza with the knife; at least four officers responded with a fusillade of gunfire, killing both the aggressor and his victim.
In the aftermath of the shooting, one officer’s body-worn camera picked him up mumbling “this is bullshit.” A dozen casings were recovered on the scene.
“We were called out to save someone, and we ended up killing him,” a veteran SFPD higher-up told Mission Local. “Oh my God. What a tragedy.”
Earlier this year, Mission Local submitted body-camera footage of officers beating unarmed Black man Dacari Spiers to half a dozen veteran current and former cops with well over a century and a half of experience between them. We have done so again with the footage of the May 19 shooting of MacFhionghain and Mendoza: The police department’s full presentation is available here, and we specifically asked officers to review three particular body-cam videos: This one, this one and this one.
While there was not unanimity among the officers in their assessments of the police tactics and behavior that led to the lethal encounter, there was unanimity in describing its aftermath. Short of an officer also being killed or wounded, this was “the absolute worst-case” outcome.
“The victim got shot in a hostage incident,” summed up a veteran officer with tactical experience. “A hostage being shot, especially by us, is a failure on all parts.”
The outcry over police, in 2015, shooting Mario Woods 21 times led to a raft of SFPD reforms, including the use-of-force policies employed beneath I-280.
Time and distance, de-escalation: These are the policies the public ostensibly wants. And the officers confronting MacFhionghain and Mendoza attempted to adhere to them, and held to the mandate of escalating use of non-lethal force, leading up to lethal force. But the veteran officers contacted by Mission Local felt that their colleagues’ rote application of the de-escalation policy stymied any creative impulse to solve this problem, and ultimately save the victim, as did a fear of being caught on camera “being a cowboy,” trying something unconventional, and failing.
“They were willing to follow the policy strictly, even if it has a worse outcome,” summed up a longtime officer.
And that happened. But for many of the untrained viewers of the body-cam footage, the sight of dozens of cops shouting at prone homeless men for 10 minutes before blasting suspect and victim alike from a distance of around three yards is unconscionable. With so many spare shooters in the background, couldn’t somebody have simply kicked MacFhionghain or struck him with a baton?
“They could have,” notes a 30-year officer. “It is not an unreasonable thing to suggest.” They could have gotten even closer to shoot him, too, and possibly spared Mendoza.
But this is not what officers are trained to do. This is not the policy.
“Our training does not have us going after a guy with a knife who has a hostage, mid-fight,” says a high-ranking SFPD veteran. “We are not expected to take a cut. We don’t go there.”
And this, laments a retired 30-year SFPD man, is a microcosm of law enforcement today, in this city and nearly every city.
“One thing that no one is talking about is that we are now seeing, in my opinion, the unforeseen consequences of the de-policing that has, for whatever reasons, taken hold in recent years,” he says. “As officers have become less inclined to interact with people, their body of experience is less than in previous generations of officers. Officers are now primarily reactive; there is very little of the self-initiated activity that was once common, appropriate and encouraged. They have become risk-averse, disinclined to go hands-on with suspects. This is a factor in the bigger picture of what is going on in American policing.”
Most every cop contacted for this story felt the department would be facing greater scrutiny, and the media would be making a bigger deal of this, if the men shot dead by the SFPD were not homeless.
Internet trolls said out loud what many people may be ashamed to even think: Just two more dead bums. But let’s not go there. Let’s instead think of this as a hostage incident, and assess how the SFPD reacted.
A “hostage incident,” by definition, is “a situation where a suspect holds another person against his/her will and where the suspect would generally be in violation of 236 PC (False Imprisonment).”
MacFhionghain lying atop Mendoza and pinning him to the ground while holding a sizable knife to his face in a scene reminiscent of “Saving Private Ryan” does meet this definition. Some officers lamented that a SWAT team wasn’t called in immediately, especially considering that the SWAT office, at 17th and De Haro, is a three-minute drive from the site of the incident.
Had the responding officers done this, and managed to keep MacFhionghain at bay for long enough for the SWAT team to arrive, the outcome could’ve been markedly different. A SWAT team, notes a veteran officer with tactical experience, brings “specialty weapons, better tactics, better training and the ability to free-think a bit more.” SWAT members, notes another veteran officer, “are much more disciplined, ice water in the veins and all that. Robocop guys.”
Not every officer felt this was a natural scenario for a tactical team, which is more commonly deployed in barricade situations. Calling in the big guns, so to speak, also would’ve been an implicit concession to a potentially quick and violent solution, which is not what officers are trained to do, and not what happened here.
But maybe it should have been. MacFhionghain, noted a veteran officer, “is showing he is violent. He is showing he means to continue being violent and he is armed. He has intent and he has opportunity. He ticks every box for a deadly force scenario.”
This situation should’ve been resolved sooner: “Kick him, shoot him.” Sometimes, the officer continues, “directed violence is appropriate. And this is a time that would apply.”
But that isn’t the option the officers chose.
Map by Will Jarrett. Basemap from Mapbox.
The police opted not to end this situation quickly and violently — or, for that matter, creatively, by subduing the suspect in a non-lethal manner. Instead, they slowed things down and attempted a peaceful resolution. But it was not handled well: Quite simply, some of the officers who shot at the two men were just not well-positioned to do so.
Though we do not yet know who killed Mendoza, he was particularly vulnerable to a shot from the officers positioned below him, looking up at the two men’s feet, rather than the officers at his side, who could more clearly discern between the two men and get a firing angle on MacFhionghain, and MacFhionghain alone.
With the officers 10 feet or fewer from the prone men on the ground, four shooters is too many. And the officers on scene were cognizant of this: At one point, one said “There are too many guns.” And yet, a veteran cop reviewing the footage and familiar with the personnel on scene says that this officer ended up firing his gun.
“If I were the supervisor on that scene,” says a longtime cop with tactical experience, “I would essentially walk up to each cop. You do have time. It is slow. You walk up and physically touch each officer. You are shooting. You are beanbag. You holster. You holster.”
“I’d direct one guy, preferably with a rifle, to keep locked on the aggressor. If he tries to stab the victim, end it. Maybe have one guy as a backup shooter, a couple less-lethal, and one guy talking. The sergeant didn’t do them any favors.”
And if you don’t have a sure shot, don’t take it. While SWAT team officers train regularly, patrol officers are only required to go to the range every six months. Many otherwise excellent cops are simply not crack shots; hitting a target with a handgun even from 10 feet is harder than it looks, especially in a frenzied, lethal situation, and especially if you’re poorly positioned.
Multiple officers likened the shooting of MacFhionghain and Mendoza to the police killing of Woods as he lurched in the general direction of an officer while holding a knife. In both situations, a lack of central organization led to officers, in essence, acting on their own, not necessarily cognizant of their colleagues’ positioning or actions. In both situations, there were a multitude of orders barked at a suspect who was not demonstrating rational behavior, and a cannonade of gunfire as soon as a shot was fired.
Hands-on, take-charge direction from a supervisor in such a situation “is critical,” notes a 30-year cop, “especially given the low experience level of many officers nowadays.”
It is distressing that, six years on, there aren’t clearer and firmer protocols around organization and supervision in standoff situations. It is distressing this could happen again — except, in this situation, it wasn’t just the suspect who died. Several officers noted that cops are taught that not only do they have to identify their target, but what’s behind it. That didn’t happen here.
As I was on the phone with a 20-plus-year SFPD veteran discussing this story, a scene erupted outside my office window of the sort that erupts all too often at 21st and Mission streets.
There was a loud exchange of harsh words between a man and a woman. Someone ran off, quickly, perhaps carrying something belonging to the man. The woman tossed a full soda cup at the man, and they screamed at each other in the street. The man used openly racist language to describe the person who ran off.
“Tell me,” said the veteran cop, who could hear it all. “Is it your distrust of the police that’s keeping you from calling the cops here”?
No, I told him. Rather I was waiting to see if this would escalate into a violent, physical confrontation. Then I would call. With him on the phone, I watched as it simmered down and the parties angrily went their own ways.
“But if you wait until it gets violent,” he told me, “then it’s too late.”
He sighed. “In a society where we have faith the police aren’t going to come and shoot people, we’d call police when an argument starts. But we are not there.”