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News + Politics Mayor suggests that police shooting was avoidable

Mayor suggests that police shooting was avoidable

Lee says better training and equipment might have saved the life of Mario Woods

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Mayor Lee discusses the Woods shooting with reporters
Mayor Lee discusses the Woods shooting with reporters

By Tim Redmond

DECEMBER 8, 2015 – Mayor Ed Lee strongly suggested today that the police shooting of Mario Woods was avoidable and should never have happened.

Instead, he told reporters, the police were relying on training that doesn’t offer enough non-lethal alternatives.

Speaking to reporters outside the Board of Supervisors Chamber, Lee said he had watched the video of the shooting. When I asked him if he thought the officers could have avoided killing Woods, he said, “they are not trained for any other choice.”

In fact, he said, “it is an example of where we could rely on some alternatives to deadly force.”

Lee made clear he wasn’t just talking about Tasers, which Chief Greg Suhr supports. He suggested that equipping police officers with shields might offer another way to contain a suspect carrying a knife or another weapon short of a firearm.

Lee stopped short of saying that the officers did anything wrong. Although the incident is still under investigation, Suhr has essentially said that the officers acted properly, telling a community meeting that they fired in self-defense.

The video shows at least six officers surrounding Woods. The man is walking away, slowly, when the first of what appear to be 19 shots are fired. Suhr says that he had raised his arm and was carrying a knife in his hand. A KQED analysis (check out the link above in this story) notes:

However, a careful review of the short Instagram video Suhr referred to suggests that officers opened fire a fraction of a second before Woods’ arm moved. In slowed-down versions of the video, the first shot is clearly audible before Woods extends his arm. In addition, in the moment Woods’ arm moves, his body appears to be moving backward, as if recoiling from being struck by a gunshot.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez in the Ex points out:

What does it matter if we give officers riot shields, if they still believe their best method for survival in the face of violence is a firearm? We need to wean the SFPD off relying on the gun as the solution for all problems, especially knives. …

Right now, SFPD use-of-force policy embraces an “escalating scale of options” in its Department General Orders. If a suspect raises fists, the police raise a baton. If a suspect pulls a knife, SFPD points a gun. The police must always escalate, in this system, for public and personal safety.

This is how Woods died. His kitchen knife inevitably drew a hailstorm of bullets.

In other countries, where the police are less reliant on guns, officers manage to subdue armed suspects without killing them.

In San Francisco, like most US cities, if an officer draws his or her gun, it’s supposed to be a situation that calls for the use of lethal force. That means the cops don’t fire once to knock someone down; they shoot and shoot and shoot until he is dead.

While he didn’t criticize the shooters who killed Woods, Lee did make it pretty clear that he thinks this could have been avoided. If that’s because the SFPD needs to overhaul its training manual and procedures, if the cops need shields, or if, as Joe Fitz suggests, we need to change the culture of the department, the bottom line is the same:

A San Francisco resident is dead, for no good reason. Even the mayor can’t deny that. We can debate policy forever (and why does it take such a clear example of a shooting that should never have happened – and was recorded on video – to make this change? Why didn’t we do it years ago?)

But in the end, I have to ask: What is Ed Lee going to say to the family of Mario Woods?

Protesters plan to appear at the Police Commission meeting Wednesday/9, meeting outside City Hall at 5pm.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

18 COMMENTS

  1. So it really seems like this was unquestionably a justified shooting. Are the protesters unaware of this or do they suggest that even a criminal attacking a police officer with a weapon should not be shot?

  2. I pretty much agree… except the part about the reforms. There won’t be any substantial reforms, except those that are counterproductive. The mayor is already posturing for tasers.

  3. Nobody feels good about seeing an obviously troubled person gun downed by the police; but since you pointed out that London had a happier resolution of a similar incident it is certainly worth noting that their political environment allows the use of tasers, San Francisco’s doesn’t.

    The officers in London didn’t wrestle the knife out of his hands. Ironic that in San Francisco the same people who oppose tasers are the first to blame the police when these tragedies occur.

    They did whatever they could with the tools that we allowed them (bean bags, pepper spray). Unfortunately this time it wasn’t enough.

  4. This is an interesting article Kozone. Thanks for the link. That said, I still think a comparison of the SFPD’s use of force guidelines to other departments would be useful and I don’t think the barrage of gunfire directed at Woods was justified.

  5. It would be interesting to compare use of force policies by various departments. I suspect the differences would be enlightening. We do know that London police recently disarmed a knife-wielding person with no shots fired. They don’t carry firearms and probably do this sort of thing all the time.

    We do not know, but it’s easy to suspect, that were it not for the videos this would have been sept under the rug by the SFPD. This is a department, that in many ways, is living in the past. Greg Suhr is responsible for this and so is the man who appointed him.

    There will be reforms, but they will come too late for Woods, who was no angel but did not deserve to die in a hail of police gunfire.

  6. I agree, it’s tough.

    I think the working premise at the moment is that no level of risk to cops or others can be tolerated. And so it is better that there is a 99% risk of death to a perp than a 1% risk to anyone else.

    If that is the prevailing paradigm then, for sure, the official justification exists for maximum force and zero tolerance.

    And while that might seem like overkill, any alternative that relies on one cop being a marksman with uncanny skills or just getting lucky with a bean bag, pepper spray or taser elevates the risk.

    Seems to me that society has essentially decided that if you act in a volatile, violent and arrogant manner then the voters would rather you died than subject others to even a minimal level of risk.

  7. Getting away with murder (no responsibility) is better than taking some responsibility for a less-lethal response? Every situation has inherent risk. But this situation … lets no blow this out of all proportion.

    I can understand that it is difficult to respond calmly in these situations. However, out of a dozen officers, there must be one with enuf presence to be able to land a shot that will bring the guy down or knock the weapon away, resulting in detention.

    Of course, if the GOs say “lethal response ONLY”, then the outcome is predetermined. Perhaps the responsibility ought to rest on the greatly overpaid Chief Suhrs epaulettes.

  8. >”This is how Woods died. His kitchen knife inevitably drew a hailstorm of bullets.”

    The police didn’t just go in with guns blazing as soon as they saw the knife. Tim is leaving out the facts that they tried both pepper spray and bean bags without success. They don’t have tasers so at that point it was either guns or grappling.

    http://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/Vigil-Held-for-Mario-Woods-San-Francisco-Stabbing-Suspect-Shot-to-Death-By-Police-360531381.html

  9. I see what you are saying but, even so, what were the other options? And who would have been held responsible if one of these cops, or a bystander, had been harmed by taking a lower risk approach?

    One might say “why not just wing him with a leg shot:? Any idea how hard it is to pull that off? Cops aim for the “center of mass” for good reasons. a higher hit probability. But that happens to be where the vital organs are.

    When a whack job perp is non-responsive and brandishes a deadly weapon, who wants to be the guy to make the call that his safety is the imperative?

  10. In most cases, I would concur with you. However, this situation is clearly different.

    One knife-wielding suspect is surrounded by half dozen cops. It does NOT take lethal force to subdue this individual. Non-lethal shots that disarm the perp for arrest seem entirely possible is this situation. However, the General Orders preclude anything but LF shots,

    Something needs to change.

  11. My point was that these alleged alternatives are inferior if a guaranteed neutralization of the threat is the imperative..

    If a cop is confronted by a maniac who will not listen to reason, respond to demands and who is menacing with a deadly weapon, the viable choices rapidly diminish.

    At some point the finger has to be pointed at Woods and his bizarre unhinged behavior.

  12. But why should he be “making a de facto decision to commit suicide buy cop?” And even if he was, the police need alternatives to thwarting such people, other than killing them!

  13. It is not true that a cop shoots to kill. That would be true for a hunter, whose aim is to kill and whose life is not in danger and who has plenty of time. A hunter does not mind if the animal he has shot wanders off into the woods and bleeds out for a few minutes, as long as he gets his kill and his dinner.

    The objective of cops is very different. It is to stop. The problem is that shooting someone is a really bad way of stopping a bad guy because someone can be shot several times and still be a threat. It is not like the movies where one shot is on target and the guy goes down. Rather it takes a lot of shots to stop a perp because some shots miss and other shots hit parts of the body that will not stop the perp. Basically you need a head or heart shot to guarantee the BG is neutralized,

    So inevitably you fire multiple shots because the percentages for one shot aren’t good. A fortiori the percentages aren’t great for tasers, rubber bullets and other surrogates either.

    The reality is that such situations are binary. If the bad guy has a weapon and wilfully disobeys LE, then he is making a de facto decision to commit suicide by cop. Which just leaves this question: What the freak was Woods thinking?

Comments are closed.

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