There are common denominators in a lot of these police shootings and the killing of Jessica Williams last week, which led to the resignation of San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr, follows one of those scripts.
She was driving what was suspected to be a stolen vehicle, and a special enforcement unit attempted to arrest her after spotting the car mid-morning. The woman would drive away before officers could speak to her, but got only 100 feet because she crashed into a parked truck.
According to media accounts, the car became wedged beneath the truck, and instead of complying with police orders, she attempted to dislodge it in order to drive away. That is when the police officer, a sergeant, fired one shot, striking and ultimately killing her.
Once again, no weapons had been found on the woman. Police said there was no indication that she had attempted to drive the car towards officers when she was shot. Further investigation is underway.
San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi called the shooting disturbing and unacceptable.
“She was entitled to due process and, above all, she was entitled to her life,” Mr. Adachi said in a statement. “Police reforms and policy changes are meaningless if they aren’t accompanied by a major shift in police culture, away from shooting first and asking questions later.”
Mayor Ed Lee said police shootings have “shaken and divided our city, and tensions between law enforcement and communities of color that have simmered for too many years have come into full view. … The community is grieving, and I join them in that grief.”
The death of Ms. Williams marks the third individual killed by San Francisco police since last December. The DOJ is currently reviewing the San Francisco Police Department after officers killed Mario Woods in December of last year.
Autopsies showed that Mr. Woods was hit by more than 20 shots. Police claim that the autopsy corroborated the investigation. “It is difficult for anyone to watch videos of the shooting. Similarly, it is equally as difficult to read the Medical Examiner’s report,” the statement said. “That said, newly released information in the autopsy report appears to corroborate facts gathered by investigators in the aftermath of this tragic incident.”
According to a statement from the ACLU in the wake of the Woods shooting, “Video of the incident, which reveals Woods trying to walk away from the officers, does not appear to show the imminent danger or substantial risk of death or serious injury that would permit the use of a firearm under SFPD policy. The video also raises questions about the officers’ decision-making and actions prior to use of the firearm and whether proper de-escalation tactics were employed.”
As we noted, San Francisco joins Baltimore and Chicago as major cities who have had their chiefs dismissed due to high profile incidents, or a string of incidents.
An April report in Chicago concludes, “CPD’s own data gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.”
To me, that line from the Chicago report is the key linkage in most of these cases. There seems to be a lack of regard by police for the sanctity of life when it comes to the handling of admittedly difficult circumstances.
The death of Sandra Bland may or may not have occurred as officials stated, but it is clear that the state trooper in that case precipitated the incident. The video shows that the trooper escalated the confrontation with Ms. Bland after she refused his request to put out a cigarette. At one point, Trooper Brian Encinia says he will forcibly remove Ms. Bland from her car and threatens her with a Taser, saying, “I will light you up.”
The death of Walter Scott in South Carolina has a video that shows Mr. Scott, who had been uncooperative in his encounter, walking away when he was shot. The death of Freddie Gray resulted from the police failing to administer medical attention in time. The death of Laquan McDonald resulted from two officers shooting Mr. McDonald shortly after arriving on the scene. The death of Tamir Rice resulted from two officers shooting a young boy in the park, when dispatch failed to notify the officers that the gun was likely a toy gun.
In some cases there was a lack of cooperation by the ultimate victim. In several of these cases there were attempts to lie and cover up, that were exposed by video.
That has led to a movement to push for body-worn cameras on all police officers – a movement that is gaining more and traction as police and civil rights groups alike see the advantage.
However, the point that Jeff Adachi makes is critical: “Police reforms and policy changes are meaningless if they aren’t accompanied by a major shift in police culture, away from shooting first and asking questions later.”
These shootings continue to occur even in departments where videos are prevalent. These shootings continue to occur despite heightened awareness. What is needed is to change the culture of police departments. Shootings have to be an absolute last resort. They have to occur when all other resources and recourse, including leaving the scene, is exhausted – and they must occur only in response to a direct threat.
There are certainly interesting debates over which side police officers ought to err on, but part of the problem that police face – and was evident in the report on Chicago – is there are high crime areas where residents need protection by the police. However, the police response to violence “is not sufficiently imbued with Constitutional policing tactics and is also comparatively void of actual procedural and restorative justice in the day-to-day encounters between the police and citizens.”
The report found that those practices undermine the job that police need to do – the community’s lack of trust results in the lack of cooperation by the community in helping the police to stop crime.
In short, we need to change the way these department operate because it is hindering their ability to do their job.
Yesterday’s article on the lack of good data on police shootings dovetails with emerging thought that the lack of transparent police oversight and accountability only further this divide. If the problems are this deep in a progressive city like San Francisco, I suspect the problem goes far deeper than we have acknowledged to date.
—David M. Greenwald reporting