by Brian Cox
Re: The Town Hall to Discuss the Shooting and Killing of Ryant Bluford
Dear Chief Scott,
On July 26, 2023, SFPD officers Marko Radin (#1945) and Peter Van Zandt (#4142) shot and killed Ryant Bluford. He was 41 years old. His friends and family called him “Peanut” and described him as a loving father, brother, cousin, and friend. Along with others in my office, I watched the town hall with shock and horror and write to convey several concerns and recommendations.
What occurred was traumatic, especially for Mr. Bluford’s loved ones and the young community members who witnessed the killing in broad daylight. But more importantly, I firmly believe Mr. Bluford should be alive today. His family and the community will continue to mourn his death, which adds to the scores of families who have lost a loved one to your officers.
Fundamentally, Mr. Bluford was pleading with officers not to take another community member away. His pain, anguish, and anger at another person of color in handcuffs getting taken away from his community was obvious. He sought to protect his community from the violent SFPD visits because he believed your officers were not there to protect them. It appears that none of your officers recognized that. Rather, they unnecessarily escalated the situation and then took the life of another Black man.
The speed at which your officers unnecessarily escalated the situation and then killed Mr. Bluford in front of his community speaks to the comfort your officers have with using force disproportionately on Black people. In the fourth quarter of 2022, SFPD officers used force on Black residents at a rate of more than 13 per 1,000 Black residents as compared to less than 1 per 1,000 white residents,2 a number that comports with findings from previous years. That same quarter, when your officers used force, 57% of the time it was against Black people, while people of color overall accounted for 82% of all uses of force. These numbers are disheartening and should raise alarm bills that spur drastic changes.
SFPD Should Hold Town Halls in Person
Your opening remarks at the townhall outlined the purpose of the event: to hold a public forum so that San Franciscans can understand and process how another member of the community was killed. But a virtual town hall limits access to only those who can stream it. More importantly, it creates another barrier between you and the community you seek to serve. Little public participation occurred as you allotted just one hour for public comment. Almost half the callers offered uncritical praise for SFPD, including a current SFPD employee calling in presumably during working hours when you have repeatedly highlighted staff shortages. Some astonishingly blamed Mr. Bluford or the young onlookers for his death. None of what occurred felt or sounded like a town hall. Rather, it sounded like a well-rehearsed, orchestrated spectacle designed to absolve the Department and officers of any wrongdoing. SFPD can and should do more to bring the community into these conversations to begin the healing process. Your Department has held town halls in person before and should seek to do so moving forward. The community deserves no less.
SFPD Should Not Indicate or Assume Officer Involved Shootings are in Policy While Investigations are Pending
While you took great pains to articulate the independence of the pending open investigations into the shooting by using words like “impartial,” “neutral,” and “procedural justice,” the substance of your comments and remarks undermined those lofty notions.
Repeatedly, you simply thanked the callers who uncritically praised the officers for killing Mr. Bluford, but routinely suggested that callers who were critical of your officers’ approach go back and review the evidence, while quoting directly from the use of force policy. That creates the impression that critical perspectives are unfounded and that uncritical callers are indeed correct. To add insult to injury, you agreed with an uncritical caller that the onlookers may be arrested and charged for filming the incident. How can San Franciscans have confidence that any investigation your department conducts into Mr. Bluford’s death will be “neutral” or “impartial” if you so readily signal to the public that the shooting was in policy?
SFPD Should Reevaluate Its De-escalation Tactics and Training
Mr. Bluford’s death that day was not inevitable. Due to their lack of planning and poor communication skills, your officers created the volatile and chaotic scene that unfolded in the Bayview community on July 26. The officers who arrested the young individual appeared to have little to no plan other than to handcuff the individual, walk to the street, and wait for transportation. Their lack of planning was highlighted by one officer yelling at the young woman filming that “if you want to get shot, ok,” which may have violated the rights of onlookers to film under Department General Order 5.07.
Moreover, your insistence that de-escalation techniques are inapplicable because Mr. Bluford’s handgun created an “exigent circumstance” is misleading because the use of force policy you quoted from requires one officer to communicate even with an armed person “to establish rapport and engage in strategic communication…” That did not occur. Instead, Ofcs. Radin and Van Zandt repeatedly, simultaneously screamed “get your fucking hands up” and “get your hands up or I’ll shoot you in the head.” Notably, Mr. Bluford removed the handgun from his pocket only after they continuously yelled at him, strongly suggesting that their presence escalated the situation.
You also touted your officers’ Crisis Intervention Team training. Two officers shouting simultaneous commands and threatening to shoot Mr. Bluford in the head calls into question exactly what that training entails and how it is being implemented. No one bothered to find another way to de-escalate the situation; Mr. Bluford’s fate seemed sealed the moment your officers saw the gun in his pants. This tragedy is yet another stain on this Department and another Black life taken at the hands of your officers.
The community needs healing and resources to thrive, not more arrests and police killings. Mr. Bluford wanted to keep his community members safe. He wanted to protect them. “You are not taking another one” was his core message. No one from SFPD heard that, but I hear it. The community he comes from hears it. Like Mr. Bluford, I am tired of seeing Black people killed and traumatized by police and the criminal legal system. And so, we must work collectively to build a world where we heal, protect, and provide for our community members. How will you use your power to bring that world into fruition?
The three recommendations I offered is a start and can empower our community: (1) hold town halls in person; (2) do not publicly adjudicate misconduct investigations while touting principles of procedural justice; and (3) revise de-escalation trainings to prevent further harm to the community we all serve.
Brian Cox – Director, Integrity Unit, San Francisco Public Defender