Police Chief Greg Suhr and Captain Gregory Yee, who oversees department training, discussed changes in use-of-force training tonight that strongly suggested that the shootings of Alex Nieto and Mario Woods did not meet the most modern, current standards – that is, under the standards the department is now trying to adopt they shouldn’t have been killed.

the shooting of Mario Woods would have been improper under new rules the chief is promoting
the shooting of Mario Woods would have been improper under new rules the chief is promoting

Among other things, Yee told the Police Commission that new recruits at the Polic Academy, and soon the rest of the officers, will be taught to stop firing after two shots to reassess the situation “and determine if there’s still a threat.”

In both the Nieto and the Woods shootings, numerous officers fired multiple rounds without stopping, and the barrage of bullets pretty much ensured that neither of the young men would survive.

The commission was hearing the department’s new policies, and Yee made it pretty clear that the past policies in similar incidents, which he described as “shoot, shoot, shoot,” need to be changed.

That’s a positive change, and police-accountability advocates were probably (cautiously) cheered to hear that things are improving.

But if you’re the family of Alex Nieto or Mario Woods, it was a bit chilling: The message the senior officers delivered was that those two shootings, while possibly within existing training guidelines, were not proper.

In fact, Suhr that in the new training guidelines, officers will be told that, particularly with suspect carrying a knife who is not an immediate threat to others, “if you decide to back out and not to engage, you will have fulfilled your duty.”

He said, “If they have an edge weapon, and might be a danger, there’s a chance to back off.”

Suhr described in positive terms the lessons that an SFPD representative learned in the United Kingdom, where most officers are not armed and there is an emphasis on “tactics, de-escalation, and the sanctity of life.” He added: “The object in the end of the threat, not to take a life.”

More: “We learned [from the UK] that if you pull a gun on someone with a knife and you say three times to drop the knife, and they don’t do it, they are going to drop it and you have to do something else.”

Nice, sounds great. Thanks, Chief.

But in the Woods case, that’s exactly what happened: Woods didn’t drop the knife, and instead of “doing something different” the officers opened fire, and fired repeatedly, more than 20 shots. Nobody stopped after two shots to see if the threat had been eliminated. Nobody de-escalated. The sanctity of life was not the primary goal.

In other words, under the standards that the chief and his top training officer say are going to be in place for the future, Woods should never have been killed.

You can make the same argument for Nieto, who was shot over and over again, long after he was down on the ground. There was no de-escalation, just, by all accounts, an order to drop a weapon that turned out to be a Taser, and then lots of cops firing lots of rounds until there was no chance the guy could survive.

Two shots can be lethal, and often are. But there’s more of a chance of survival if the suspect isn’t riddled with bullet holes. That, of course, is the reason that SFPD now thinks officers should slow down the firing squads. Would Alex Nieto be alive if he’d been hit twice instead of 14 times? I don’t know. But the odds would have been better.

The point here is that the police brass seems to be admitting, after the fact, that the recent shootings were wrong, that better and more modern training might have prevented them.

Yee told the commissioners that in the future, instead of telling a suspect to drop a knife, officers should ask him “why do you have a knife. And if he says it’s because the green monsters crawling out of the sewer are going to kill him, you can act appropriately.”

But it’s 2016, and the UK has had these policies in place for many years, and law-enforcement experts have been talking about de-escalation for a long time – and why did it take this long for the SFPD to figure out that shooting first and asking questions later is a bad idea?

Why are two young men dead when the chief seems to be saying that the training that led to the shootings was outmoded and needs to be changed?

It’s fine to fix problems after they happen, which is a tradition in American politics. We all learn from mistakes. And since there are lawsuits, I suppose the mayor and the chief can’t turn around and say: We screwed up.

But they just did that, in effect. And still, nobody involved has been held accountable.

  • playland

    Re: “if you pull a gun on someone with a knife and you say three times to drop the knife, and they don’t do it, they are going to drop it and you have to do something else… But in the Woods case, that’s exactly what happened”

    That isn’t true at all. They did try something else (bean bags, mace). They don’t have tasers.

  • Carl

    You know what else would have saved Mario Woods’ life? Not stabbing a guy, then resisting arrest and pleas to drop the knife, then goading the police to shoot him.

  • Ringo

    The guideline of “shoot twice; then stop” sounds fine in theory. But in a situation where there are several cops on the scene, there is no “designated shooter”. Once a judgement is made that the guy is a threat, every cop will independently react by opening fire. So if there are six cops, that is 12 shots. The odds improve for the suspect, but not hugely.

    The flip side is that if only one cop had opened fire, and only fired twice, could Woods have continued to be a threat? It’s easily possible that one shot could miss while another is on target but doesn’t stop Woods, who then stabbed the cop he was approaching. The twenty foot rule is pertinent here.

    The real underlying principle of policing in this situation is to render the threat zero in the shortest possible time, at the lowest risk to the cops or anyone else. The more “measured” the response, the higher the risk of injury to others. So it is a tradeoff and the question is whether the people would prefer a 10% risk that a cop gets stabbed to a 100% certainty that someone like Wood dies. A poll of the voters would be interesting on that issue.

    • Kyle Huey

      There’s also the question of what the cops would prefer. They may decide to quit and go work at another department rather than take that 10% risk of getting stabbed.

  • Greg

    This has nothing to do with training. Police murder will continue until there’s some real accountability -civilian control of discipline, hiring, and firing decisions. And real jail time for the perps.

    • Ringo

      But SFPD is under civilian control and accountability. The SFPD chief is appointed by, and reports to, our elected mayor. The SFPD budget is approved by the elected BofS. And there is civilian oversight from the police commission which, in their wisdom, denies SFPD the tazers that would have kept Woods alive.

      You need a reason to believe that the voters want any more “accountability” than that. You need a reason to believe that the majority of voters feel more sympathy for a violent felon like Woods than a sworn peace officer.

      And by re-electing Ed Lee and sacking the more touchy-feely sheriff Mirkarimi, I am not seeing any evidence of popular support for your ideas.

      • Greg

        Sam!

        • playland

          Sam you should do a blog post on how to avoid getting blocked on Disqus.

          • Ringo

            The only person I know for a fact has been banned from 48Hills, via Disqus, is marc “sffoghorn” sullivan. He admitted it on another local blog and of course hasn’t been seen here for weeks.

            One thing I like about Tim is that he does not try and censor based on ideology. He has a profound respect for the diversity of political opinion that is out there.

          • playland

            No, Tim bans people who say things that he doesn’t like. Sffoghorn isn’t the only one. There is a reason that this board has become a lot quieter in recent weeks.

            So why do you keep changing your handle if he’s not blocking you?

          • Ringo

            Changing your Disqus name can throw off stalkers and those who would rather attack the messenger than discuss the topic. One thing I know Tim doesn’t like is personal attacks on others. Somebody here was stalking me across different websites so I cultivated the art of switching handles.

            You may well be correct that others have been banned from here. It’s hard to know if someone was banned rather than just went away of their own accord. Sffoghorn claims he was banned for criticizing Calvin Welch here.

            For a while the discussions here were being dominated and monopolized by “professional” commentators like hiker/Gary and wcw. They seem to have dialled it down recently which may be contributing to the improved quality of discourse here of late.

          • Greg

            This is beyond twisted.

            1. You’re the worst stalker on here. The response to you, OTOH, seems to be ignoring you and/or blocking/banning you. Everyone knows that the reason you change handles all the time is because as soon as people realize it’s you, it discredits everything you say from that point on. It says a lot that you’ve become such an infamous troll that merely finding out it’s you instantly discredits your argument. And it’s so easy to realize it’s you -same tired, hackneyed talking points in every post. I hadn’t been on here for days, and after the very first post I’ve seen with your “Ringo” incarnation, I instantly knew it was you.

            2. The reason this site has been more quiet lately, is that it’s frankly not that interesting anymore. At least that’s why I don’t comment nearly as frequently as before (well, that and the fact that it’s 75 degrees outside half the time). It feels like Tim’s just calling it in these days. Most of the stuff that actually feels fresh is usually written by someone else. So there. I said it. And this is coming from someone who agrees with Tim 99% of the time.

            3. Sffoghorn got banned for revealing what he knew about the true source of funding for Tim’s pet project. For a site that advocates openness and transparency, I thought it was really distasteful. And the way it was done was just ugly -dropping a nuclear bomb on the entire thread and banning foghorn completely.

            And especially when you have the juxtaposition of banning someone like foghorn, while letting trolls like you, Sam, run wild -it’s absurd. Sffoghorn was blunt and cantankerous at times, but he had some poignant criticism to offer. You, OTOH, add nothing. And yet here you are.

            I’ll channel foghorn today and call it out as total hypocrisy; I lost a lot of respect for Tim that day. And if Tim wants to ban me for saying that, I don’t really care that much at this point.

          • Ringo

            1) You discredit people by refuting them, and not by merely alleging that they are discredited. Sorry but if you want to win a debate here, you have to engage the topic and not just throw out insults. And yes, you are one of the stalkers and trolls here, and your comments here are just as predictable and repetitive as you claim mine are, especially on the topic of SFPD.

            2) This site is quieter because marcos has been banned, and also because 2/3 other regulars appear to have left (whether banned or not, we don’t know). The content has been consistent and, if anything, the debate is more civil and constructive now.

            3) Marcos was in trouble here anyway. For a few weeks before the incident you refer to, he was having his comments removed. The reason he is barred and I am not is that he becomes insulting and offensive, and I always emphasize civility. If you cannot discuss politics without becoming angry, then find another hobby.

      • jhayes362

        There is no assurance that the use of tasers would have saved Woods’ or Nieto’s lives. Multiple tasers, or even one hitting near the heart, have the potential to interrupt heart rythm and cause a fatal heart attack. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taser_safety_issues

        Redmond’s point is well taken: A review of SFPD’s use of force policies is long overdue and comes too late for Woods and Nieto. Simply adding tasers is not the answer.

        • playland

          A review of the SFPD’s use of force should always be underway. But Redmond’s points are painfully cherry picked. For example:

          the United Kingdom, where most officers are not armed and there is an emphasis on “tactics, de-escalation, and the sanctity of life.”

          Like this?

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uf5fG7Ehs90

          The British Police get out of their car and taser a knife wielding guy as quickly as they can. If you don’t like that example then just search “British Police taser”

          And how are the British police not armed? I though that tasers were very dangerous weapons. Which is it already?

          • jhayes362

            You could be cherry-picking facts as well. I won’t argue details of Redmond’s column, but I think it’s sad that it took two deaths, both likely unnecessary, to get the SFPD moving on use of force and training questions.

  • scott_lewis

    What is the reason so many in SF are opposed to police having tasers? It seems beanbags, then tasers and finally weapons if the first two don’t work. Going straight from beanbags to bullets eliminates a non-lethal option.

    • Greg

      You alluded to the problem with tasers in your own question:
      “…then tasers and finally weapons…”
      “a non-lethal option”
      Actually, tasers ARE weapons, and they CAN be -and have been -quite lethal. But since they are commonly *thought of* as non-lethal, or as even something other than a weapon, they tend to be overused by departments, leading to needless pain and even death.

  • While I don’t know if anything could have saved Mario Woods, I would like to believe that with better training, better equipment (e.g. 40mm bean bag guns, shields and maybe net guns) and especially a better use of force policy, this tragedy could have been avoided.

  • Pingback: SFPD manages not to kill armed suspect | 48 hills()