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SFPD gets away with murder(s); Department of Justice comes to town

February 26, 2016

by Carl Finamore

San Francisco is touted by conservative detractors and liberal boosters alike as the nation’s most progressive city. This is still true in many ways, even amidst towering symbols of gentrification.

Mesha Irizarry, mother of Idriss Stelley, who was shot 48 times on June 13, 2001, by nine SFPD officers as they burst into a Sony Metreon auditorium at Fourth and Mission in San Francisco, where Idriss sat alone during a mental health crisis, gave powerful testimony to the DOJ panel. Her Idriss Stelley Foundation has been at the forefront in demanding justice after every SFPD murder and fundamental change in the department’s policies and culture.

Mesha Irizarry, mother of Idriss Stelley, who was shot 48 times on June 13, 2001, by nine SFPD officers as they burst into a Sony Metreon auditorium at Fourth and Mission in San Francisco, where Idriss sat alone during a mental health crisis, gave powerful testimony to the DOJ panel. Her Idriss Stelley Foundation has been at the forefront in demanding justice after every SFPD murder and fundamental change in the department’s policies and culture.

But, in particular, when it comes to holding police accountable for use of excessive force against communities of color, the City by the Bay is no different from the New Yorks, Chicagos, Baltimores or Fergusons of this country, where cops literally get away with murder.

Think this is an exaggeration? Read on.

The very well respected ACLU has just written to the Department of Justice (DOJ) calling for an investigation of the SFPD for “ingrained problems” that include “excessive use of deadly force against young men of color,” and that includes “ample evidence of the persistent presence of racial bias.”

The letter to the DOJ is meticulously documented and detailed. It cites, for example, Joyce Hicks, director of the San Francisco Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC), who publicly admitted that not one of the 250 racial bias complaints received by her office had been sustained.

In another example where SFPD racial bias was alleged, the ACLU provided documentation that “in 2013, Black adults in San Francisco were 6 percent of the population, yet 40 percent of the people arrested, 44 percent of people jailed and 40 percent of people convicted.”

The very well respected ACLU has just written to the Department of Justice (DOJ) calling for an investigation of the SFPD for “ingrained problems” that include “excessive use of deadly force against young men of color,” and that includes “ample evidence of the persistent presence of racial bias.”

These numbers are truly staggering. That’s why, anti-police brutality activists tell me, excessive force and racial bias by San Francisco police is no different from what other communities around the country are experiencing, where their issues are ignored, dismissed or swept under the rug.

DOJ comes to San Francisco

On Feb. 24, the Department of Justice (DOJ) came to the largely Black SF neighborhood of Bayview to hold the first in a series of “listening sessions” as part of their “review” of the city’s “police department polices, including, among other things, training, hiring and use of force,” according to Noble Wray, chief of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), the police policies assessment team of the DOJ.

But DOJ calls for more dialogue, more review and more conversations didn’t much satisfy the audience suffering under a lingering crisis of police brutality.

Supporters of Alex Nieto and Mario Woods, who have frequently demonstrated together in a Black-Brown coalition, were well represented at the DOJ “listening session” at Thurgood Marshall. – Photo: Frank Lara

Supporters of Alex Nieto and Mario Woods, who have frequently demonstrated together in a Black-Brown coalition, were well represented at the DOJ “listening session” at Thurgood Marshall. – Photo: Frank Lara

“Ferguson is here,” the first community speaker impatiently asserted to wild applause from the audience of around 75 who attended the “listening session.”

Another speaker requested as politely as he could that the two African-American representatives on the five-person DOJ panel put “a hoodie on and walk around Third and Palou,” the main intersection in Bayview Hunters Point.

See how many times you get stopped, he said, how many times you get searched and how many times you get leering looks from cops when, in fact, you are doing absolutely nothing to arouse suspicion “other than being Black or Latino.”

Again, this aroused the audience to cheers and shouts of “Yeah! Yeah! Do it, Brothers! Walk with us!”

I looked for signs of discomfort on the faces of the five DOJ emissaries, but they were experienced and maintained a very calm “no comment, no reaction” demeanor. All very accommodating and friendly, to be sure, and also, at the same time, appearing genuinely interested in listening.

Clearly, we were dealing with top-drawer professionals from Washington.

So, while none of the DOJ reps showed any emotions from the stage, the testimony from the floor was at times very emotional. Mothers and relatives of police murder victims shared their heartfelt stories of how “those same bullets that rip open our children’s bodies also tear apart our families” and, yet, in agony, we wait and wait for the hands of justice.

“Ferguson is here,” the first community speaker impatiently asserted to wild applause from the audience of around 75 who attended the “listening session.”

But, it wasn’t until another speaker slowly read off the shockingly wretched misconduct record of SFPD Chief Greg Suhr that I thought actual drops of sweat might appear on our stoic DOJ hosts.

A journalist writing last year in the Marina Times had already colorfully described Suhr’s record this way:

This photo of U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Director Ronald Davis, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, and San Francisco Chief of Police Greg Suhr tops a story on Salon.com about the “listening session,” headlined “’Baghdad by the Bay’: San Francisco is slowly devolving into a crypto police state.” – Photo: Ben Margot, AP

This photo of U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Director Ronald Davis, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, and San Francisco Chief of Police Greg Suhr tops a story on Salon.com about the “listening session,” headlined “’Baghdad by the Bay’: San Francisco is slowly devolving into a crypto police state.” – Photo: Ben Margot, AP

“You’d think the chief would have better things to do than intimidate city employees, especially since his own department is such a train wreck. His predecessor, District Attorney Gascón, believes it’s so bad that he recently formed a task force to dig into allegations of corruption, misconduct, homophobia and racism throughout the city’s law enforcement structure, and there’s plenty to keep them busy.”

The writer alluded to one notorious episode in 2009 when “then-Deputy Chief Suhr received a call from a female friend who said her boyfriend was beating and strangling her. The woman’s collarbone was broken, yet Suhr didn’t arrest the suspect” and delayed filing a report in violation of California law. The suspect was later charged with attempted murder.

SFPD internal affairs attorney Kelly O’Haire prosecuted the case before the Police Commission and Suhr was demoted.

But, it did not end there.

O’Haire later testified in a lawsuit against Suhr and the city that Suhr’s politically connected attorneys repeatedly threatened her, even calling to say her actions against Suhr were “going to be a future employment problem” and that she was “going to be sorry.”

Indeed, the former SFPD attorney was, in fact, fired in 2011, two weeks after Suhr was appointed chief by Mayor Lee. In 2015, just before jury selection began, the city settled O’Haire’s case for $725,000.

After hearing these and other compelling stories of Suhr’s misconduct, it seemed to me that the DOJ reps appeared to be paying particularly close attention, as if they were hearing these things for the first time.

Troy Williams speaks as the other members of the Department of Justice “listening session” panel sit on the stage of the Thurgood Marshall High School auditorium on Feb. 24. – Photo: Hoodline

Troy Williams speaks as the other members of the Department of Justice “listening session” panel sit on the stage of the Thurgood Marshall High School auditorium on Feb. 24. – Photo: Hoodline

Hopefully, they were beginning to appreciate the passionately delivered remarks from the majority of speakers that “we do not need listening sessions, we do not need more data collection and we damn well do not need more reviews.”

What we do need, as was stated often from the floor, is a full-blown DOJ civil rights investigation of the SFPD’s consistent “pattern and practice” of discrimination, corruption and excessive force.

Attorney John Crew, retired ACLU police practices specialist, who also spoke at the meeting, agreed. “2015 is without a doubt the most scandal-ridden year for the SFPD in my memory,” he told me, “and I have been following the police in this city for decades.”

He is not alone.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón was recently quoted in local media as saying “in my 30 years plus in law enforcement, I have seen a good deal of misconduct by police officers. I have seen scandals. But the level of the problems and the frequency of the problems that we’re facing here today are very unusual.”

“And it’s not just a few incidents,” attorney Crew added during our conversation. “It is many incidents, just as we heard tonight.”

“We do not need listening sessions, we do not need more data collection and we damn well do not need more reviews.” What we do need is a full-blown DOJ civil rights investigation of the SFPD’s consistent “pattern and practice” of discrimination, corruption and excessive force.

Yet, he continued, all that the mayor and chief of police and now even the DOJ are talking about is “more training and better policies.” This is all well and good but largely ineffective, Crew concluded, because the police chief and mayor do not hold officers accountable for the travesties that have already occurred and they will, therefore, inevitably recur.

“This is all talk and no action from the DOJ this evening, and the community, for all the right reasons, wants action,” Crew stated to me with conviction.

Recent police shootings

Echoing that point, several speakers listed a few examples of what were dramatically described as police “assassinations and firing-squad executions” where no one has been held accountable, not one person.

Kenneth Harding, 19, shot five times in the back in 2011 as he was running away from police seeking to detain him because he failed to pay the $2 trolley fare. Stretching credulity to its limit, newly appointed Police Chief Suhr claimed the African-American youth somehow shot himself in the back as he was running away. Despite a vigorous police search for the gun that Kenneth allegedly used to shoot himself, none was ever recovered.

Alex Nieto, 28, fired upon 48 times by police in 2014 on his way to work after eating lunch. An autopsy and forensics report confirmed the barrage of police bullets continued after Alex was down. Though police say Alex was aggressive and pointed his security guard licensed Taser, a witness testified in the family’s civil-suit deposition that Alex had his hands in his pockets at the time he was shot. What did this Buddhist, community peace-maker and college student do to deserve this, his family asks?

Amilcar Perez-Lopez, 20, shot six times in 2015 with four of the shots in his back, after being accused of lunging forward at officers with a knife. The two undercover officers involved had previously been involved in a lawsuit charging police brutality.

Finally, Mario Woods, 26, an African American who suffered 21 gunshot wounds in 2015 with 16 of them according to the autopsy “back to front.”

This is the case that has finally triggered an uproar throughout the city, mostly because the transparently concocted rush to judgment by Police Chief Suhr to justify the shooting completely fell apart. His bogus scenario has been exposed by a major SF television station as a wholly inaccurate representation of how the murder unfolded.

The DOJ panel met at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in Bayview, where, on Oct. 11, 2002, a day known in infamy in BVHP as 10/11, over 100 cops invaded the school upon hearing of a minor fistfight between two students. As helicopters swarmed the skies, they blocked all exits, packing over 1,000 students into the hallway, where they couldn’t move, and viciously swung their batons, especially at the darker skinned students and a Black teacher trying to video the attack. A Bay View story (no longer available online because a previous sfbayview.com website was hacked and destroyed) quoted a student: “‘We were coming out of the office as the fight was going on, and an officer took his gun out at one of the students and told him, ‘Don’t make me use this,’ said Ely Guolio, a student. ‘I was shocked.’”

The DOJ panel met at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in Bayview, where, on Oct. 11, 2002, a day known in infamy in BVHP as 10/11, over 100 cops invaded the school upon hearing of a minor fistfight between two students. As helicopters swarmed the skies, they blocked all exits, packing over 1,000 students into the hallway, where they couldn’t move, and viciously swung their batons, especially at the darker skinned students and a Black teacher trying to video the attack. A Bay View story (no longer available online because a previous sfbayview.com website was hacked and destroyed) quoted a student: “‘We were coming out of the office as the fight was going on, and an officer took his gun out at one of the students and told him, ‘Don’t make me use this,’ said Ely Guolio, a student. ‘I was shocked.’”

For example, in the days immediately after the shooting, Suhr presented a single video frame that appears to show Woods extending his arm toward an officer, who, by the way, improperly placed himself in close proximity and directly in front of Woods as he was attempting to walk away.

Suhr also claimed that the single frame video image showed a knife in the young man’s hands.

But, in their own words, television station KQED’s analysis of the same Instagram video “appears to contradict claims by Police Chief Greg Suhr that officers opened fire only after Woods made a threatening movement.”

Elaborating even more, the station concluded that “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 addition, in the moment Woods’ arm moves, his body appears to be moving backward, as if recoiling from being struck by a gunshot.”

The ACLU letter to the DOJ concludes that the video shooting death of Mario Woods “plainly shows what appears to be an execution-style shooting of a young African American man on a public street by five SFPD officers.”

Strong words backed up with evidence.

The ACLU letter to the DOJ concludes that the video shooting death of Mario Woods “plainly shows what appears to be an execution-style shooting of a young African American man on a public street by five SFPD officers.”

SFPD in hot water

Here we have a complete repudiation of another in a long line of police cover-ups that has blown the whole issue of police violence wide open and elicited calls for the firing of Police Chief Suhr, who is the highest paid cop in the nation, by the way.

Reacting to the widespread community uproar, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution calling for a DOJ investigation of the murder of Mario Woods and police practices in general.

The whole sordid record of recent police murders in San Francisco has also led to blistering criticisms of the SFPD by numerous community figures.

Reacting to the widespread community uproar, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution calling for a DOJ investigation of the murder of Mario Woods and police practices in general.

For example, Father Richard Smith of St. John’s Episcopal Church has spoken very frankly about the problem: “There is a prevalent death culture in the SFPD. They view their mission in our community as a them-against-us situation. I fear for my parishioners and all the innocent youth of color who live with a constant fear that on any day a police bullet may take their young lives.”

A very damning indictment from an otherwise temperate voice.

911 Emergency put on hold by DOJ

San Francisco offers a vivid example of how difficult it is to hold accountable those engaged in police corruption and brutality so intrinsic to the characteristic national system of command and control policing, absent any real power by communities of color.

It is a more vivid example of entrenched institutional police violence and racism precisely because it is occurring in one of the nation’s most liberal cities.

Activists at the “listening session” made abundantly clear they would continue their protests until there is a DOJ investigation. Let’s see how uncomfortable things become for those who fail to recognize the severity of the problem.

Carl Finamore is the Machinist Local 1781 delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He lives in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood and can be reached at local1781@yahoo.com.

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3 thoughts on “SFPD gets away with murder(s); Department of Justice comes to town

  1. Callinuout

    Kenneth Harding was not evading a fare. He was evading a murder case in Seattle where he had killed a pregnant woman. He was not shot five times in the back. He brandished a 380 pistol while running and brought it up to shoot the pursuing officer. That officer fired at Harding, hitting him in the calf of his leg. Harding stumbled and fired one shot into his own neck, which penetrated to his brain. The gun was removed from the scene by a civilian and then recovered based on information from an informant. It was tested and the bullet removed from Harding's brain was matched to the gun. But then you know all of this. Your article is riddled with patent lies such as this. This is just one example. You have no credibility.

    Reply
    1. demotropolis

      this is pure bs . even police say they gave chase because of a fare evasion . there is no evidence that kenny harding committed any crimes in seattle or anywhere else . there was no pistol recovered . what do you think, that he hid the gun after allegedly shooting himself? you should call yourself ben doverforcops

      Reply
      1. Fun

        He did not hide the gun after he was shot. He could not do anything because his brain was dying. The gun was taken by some other thug. Thankfully, since that particular ilk is so cowardly, it was quickly retrieved through interviews with snitches. The gun matched the bullet recovered from that POS's brain.

        Game, set, match.

        That's why, no traction on this nonsense. Kenny Harding accidentally killed himself.

        Yeah World!

        It would be hard to calculate the savings to the tax payers of California and Oregon, but trust me its significant.

        Reply

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