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News + PoliticsCommunity confronts Chief Suhr: 'I am never calling the...

Community confronts Chief Suhr: ‘I am never calling the police’

More than a hundred angry residents attended the town hall meeting Wednesday where Police Chief Greg Suhr announced that the officers who shot and killed Luis Gongora last week were defending themselves against the homeless man, because — as per officer statements — Gongora was yielding a knife. The statements made by Suhr contradict seven eyewitnesses who told the press that Gongora posed no threats to the officers.

Gongora, a 45-year-old homeless man, lived in an encampment on Shotwell Street between 18th and 19th streets, was shot and killed last Thursday after two  police officers shot at him seven times. Wednesday’s meeting repeated what we’ve heard several times before, that Police Department policy allows the use of lethal force when officer’s believe there is “imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury.”

The Police Version of the Incident: 

Police Meeting at Town Hall
‘A truly diverse panel’ SFPD panel at town hall meeting had to field tough questions from city residents

Members of the Homeless Outreach Team called the police when they saw a man, now identified as Mr. Gongora,  “forcefully kicking and bouncing a basketball against cars in the area.” They proceeded to meet with other members of the homeless community, as they were about to leave they witnessed Gongora “swinging the knife around in a chopping motion,” Suhr said. Two officers arrived at the scene and, according to their statement, saw Gongora seated with a 13-inch knife in his hand “with the blade facing upwards.”

“They ordered him to out the knife down multiple times, Mr. Gongora briefly placed the knife down with his hand still on top of the handle, only to pick the knife back up again” Suhr said. An enlarged photo of the knife was placed on display.

“The first responding officer then fired four bean bag rounds in an effort to disarm him.” Suhr then said Gongora lunged at one of the officers with knife in his hand. This is when, according to Suhr, the two officers fired seven shots, six of which hit Gongora.

Suhr also added that the third officer who arrived on the scene shouted commands in Spanish, as three homeless neighbors Stephanie Grant, John Visor, and Rosalyn Barnett told the press that Gongora was a monolingual Spanish speaker who possibly did not understand police commands.

However, video obtained by the Chronicle doesn’t capture any Spanish commands. The video shows two police cars parking on the street, and as two officers walk up the sidewalk, an officer can be heard saying “Get on the ground, get on the ground.” One officer then pauses and walks slowly towards Gongora, his gun still aimed, and the other officer then joins in as a third officer walks behind them. “Get on the ground, put that down” the officer is heard saying before shots are fired. The entire incident took place in less than 30 seconds.

The Aftermath:

On Friday, a day after the shooting, Department of Public Works trucks picked up trash from the block as city staff moved nine people from the encampment to the Navigation Center. However, residents of the encampment who spoke to Mission Local said they were suspicious of the timing.

In a video recorded by Adriana Camarena, author and activist with the Amor for Alex Nieto campaign, police officers can be seen dismantling tents at the Shotwell encampment late at night in the rain. Grant and Visor can be seen in the video as they speak about being threatened with arrest by the police who arrived at their tents with batons prompting them to move their tents one street down.
As the Police Officers continued to dismantle unoccupied tents, Camarena, who was present and filming the incident, was interrupted when police officer at the scene decided to shine his flashlight at her camera. “So you’re flashing your flash light at me so that I can’t record?” Camerana said. The officer responded, “I am flashing the light at you because you’re pointing something at me and I am concerned for my safety,” a statement eerily similar to statements issued by officers in cases of police shootings. Despite seeing the camera in her hand, the officer continued to point the flashlight obstructing filming of the incident.

‘I am never calling the police’

At the town hall meeting, one after another, members of the public took the stand to express their grief and anger at the San Francisco Police Department. Grandmothers, young men, and women of all colors stood in line to question the attitude of the police and that of the Mayor Lee in response to police shootings and the homeless crisis that has gripped the city.

Biance Starr, a mother and San Francisco resident, spoke out about her fears. “A few years ago, I thought there’s no way I could live in the Mission and raise my children here because of gang violence. I could never imagine raising a family here but today, as I have an eight year old, how do you feel if I tell you that I am not afraid of gangs, I am afraid of you” she said, “I have told my eight year old not to buy toy guns even, because I am scared, I am scared about what the police might do.” Starr, spoke about her children fearing police sirens now as they hear stories of police violence in the city.

Police Chief Suhr at Town Hall
Police Chief Suhr with Deputy Chief Toney Chaplin at the town hall meeting after Luis Gongora’s killing

Third generation San Franciscan Darrell Rogers rallied the crowd: “The one question that I have to ask that has never been answered is what is considered as excessive force?” he said. As people from the audience responded with a “thank you,” Rogers went on “Is excessive force when I shoot you 15 times and you don’t even have a weapon? is excessive force when I shoot you six times in the back and all I was trying to do was get away? Is excessive force when anytime someone Black or Brown appears to anyone who says ‘Oh my god, I don’t like that person I better call the police,’ does that automatically mean that we should have excessive force to get rid of that person?”

Rogers then addressed the panel by telling them how the community worked on making sure the police force was diverse. He then addressed Toney Chaplin, deputy chief for professional standards and principled policing, “I dare you to sit there knowing that the community is the only reason why you are out there, I dare you to sit there knowing that you wouldn’t even be considered, I dare you to sit there knowing that everything that’s happening in your police department is being turned around against you anytime another officer starts writing texts about ‘kill those n*****” he said, as the audience broke into applause.

Joey Johnson from the Stop Mass Incarceration Network, stepped up next and refused to face the panel. “You are talking about deescalation tactics, you are talking about all of this is a sham,” he said “What do you expect someone who is being shot with beanbags to just sit there and take those shots? Why wouldn’t he get up and run? And then movement gives them further justification to pull out their 40 caliber weapons and blow him away, blow him away. And then they went out there and swept out the area which was destruction of evidence,” he said, the hall erupted with chants of “Fire Chief Suhr.”

Mathew Castro, a close friend and former colleague of Luis Gongora, broke down as he addressed the chief. “I hung out with him everyday till about 2012, till he was evicted from his apartment. Luis was most kind-hearted and selfless, he didn’t have a hostile bone in his body.”

Castro said he was shocked to read the police account of the incident. “The guy was 130 pounds, he was so docile.” Castro broke down as he recalled how he tried to convince Gongora to go back to Mexico. “I wont see him in the street anymore” he said as he teared up again.

Perhaps the most telling conversation of the day inivolved District 9 Supervisor David Campos, who questioned why his office was never informed of the meeting and raised a question the question regarding the timing of the meeting. “Why is the meeting taking place at noon?” he asked, “We usually hold meetings at the time and place closest to the shooting,” Suhr said, “I would highly doubt that if the meeting happened late at night that you’d be holding a meeting at that time,” Campos responded.

One after the other people took the stand to express their distrust in the police force, with many repeating the fact that they are willing to put themselves in harms way rather than calling the police. Later at the Police Commission meeting that took place at City Hall at 5:30, the same questions regarding officer’s dismantling tents arose to which the Suhr came up with the same response he had three hours earlier: “I still have not seen the video so can not comment.” The video in question was freely distributed by Camerana and has been published by various media outlets.


48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Sana Saleem
Sana Saleem
Sana Saleem is a writer with a focus on social justice and human stories. She's member board of advisory for the Courage Foundation, Edward Snowden's legal defense fund.

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