Mario Woods’ mother and attorney John Burris call for Department of Justice investigation and external review of SFPD

Hundreds of protesters rallied prior to the first Police Commission meeting after the SFPD murder of Mario Woods – and demonstrations of all kinds, which have brought together Black and Brown San Franciscans into a strong coalition, have been organized nearly every day since. – Photo: Mission Local
Hundreds of protesters rallied prior to the first Police Commission meeting after the SFPD murder of Mario Woods – and demonstrations of all kinds, which have brought together Black and Brown San Franciscans into a strong coalition, have been organized nearly every day since. – Photo: Mission Local

by Lee Houskeeper

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Monday, Jan. 18, a 10:30 a.m. press conference will be held by renowned civil rights attorney with his client Gwendolyn Woods, mother of Mario Woods, whose firing-squad-style execution by SFPD on Dec. 2 was recorded by several bystanders and relayed around the world. Mario was murdered in his own neighborhood, the gentrification pressured and police occupied Bayview Hunters Point, San Francisco’s last Black community.

Allen Chapel AME Church, 195 Scotia St. in Bayview Hunters Point, San Francisco, is the location. Also expected to attend are members of Burris’ law office Adante Pointer, Dewitt Lacy and Melissa Nolds, Rev. Amos Brown of the San Francisco NAACP, Rev. Cubie Finley, Min. Christopher Muhammed and Shawn Richard of Brothers Against Guns.

In preparation for the press conference, John Burris made the following statement:

At an earlier press conference with her attorney, John Burris, on Dec. 11, nine days after losing her son to a SFPD firing squad, Mario Woods’ mother Gwendolyn Woods is distraught as she describes his hopes for the future and the UPS job he would have started the day after his execution. – Photo: KTVU
At an earlier press conference with her attorney, John Burris, on Dec. 11, nine days after losing her son to a SFPD firing squad, Mario Woods’ mother Gwendolyn Woods is distraught as she describes his hopes for the future and the UPS job he would have started the day after his execution. – Photo: KTVU

Mario Woods’ family is outraged by Mayor Lee’s directive to San Francisco Police Chief Suhr, asking him to review the Police Department’s use of force policies. This directive is particularly untenable in the aftermath of the Mario Woods shooting and the credibility questions raised by Chief Suhr’s initial claims that the shooting was justifiable.

I am sure the mayor is aware of both the African American and Latino communities’ concerns about the department’s pattern and practice of engaging in unconstitutional policing. Specifically they want the department to stop sanctioning the use of excessive force and illegal stops and detentions against citizens of color.

The mayor’s insistence to permit the police to police themselves and not call for an independent investigation into the department’s practices leaves the community with little confidence these practices will be addressed and reformed. The mayor’s stance has reignited the community’s concerns that he is part of the problem and not part of the solution.

While Chief Suhr believes he can be objective, his background and history with the department demonstrates otherwise. As a police officer, he himself has engaged in misconduct and as chief he has consistently ratified prior instances of police officer misconduct. In light of the foregoing, there is ample reason to believe that he is not the appropriate person to evaluate the department’s policies and procedures.

While Chief Suhr believes he can be objective, his background and history with the department demonstrates otherwise. As a police officer, he himself has engaged in misconduct.

As a result of Mario Woods’ death at the hands of five San Francisco police officers, we have asked the Department of Justice to 1) investigate the officers who shot and killed Mr. Woods for possible federal criminal civil rights violations; and 2) open a civil rights pattern and practice investigation into the department regarding officers’ use of deadly force, illegal stops, detention and searches of African Americans and Latinos.

We support the mayor’s request to evaluate the use of force policies in effect at the time Mario Woods was killed; however, to assure transparency and objectivity, the evaluation should be conducted by an outside agency or group of experienced police practice experts.

Our concerns about giving this task to Chief Suhr are set forth as follows:

  1. Shortly after Mario Woods was riddled with bullets, Chief Suhr held a press conference wherein he appeared to present a false narrative, which further degraded the public trust in the department. Suhr’s action sought to demonize Mario Woods in an attempt to justify his officers’ barrage of bullets. Chief Suhr’s actions were either grossly negligent or done with the intent to deceive the public. Even providing Chief Suhr the benefit of the doubt, his conduct renders him too biased to objectively evaluate his department.
  2. In early 2015, we believe that Chief Suhr relied on blatantly untrue information to defend another questionable officer involved shooting, prior to even reviewing autopsy reports. Suhr reported that Amilcar Perez Lopez was lunging towards officers when they opened fire on him; however, autopsy results show that officers actually shot Lopez five times in the back and once in the back of his head. Even after being confronted by undisputable medical evidence, Suhr continues to defend his officers’ action.
  3. The year before, four San Francisco police officers showered Alex Nieto with 48 bullets, despite him being armed at most with a taser, another incident where Chief Suhr rushed to his officers’ defense. These are just three of the 103 times SFPD officers have shot citizens since 2000. In those 103 shooting incidents and 37 deaths, the department did not find a single instance of excessive force. In each instance of deadly force, the department ratified the officers’ conduct as being justifiable.
  4. In addition to numerous incidents of excessive and deadly force, the department was recently exposed for employing at least a dozen officers who were exchanging racist text messages. Many of these officers are still working for the City. This news comes on the heels of a San Francisco drug sting where only African Americans were indicted, despite video evidence showing other races engaged in criminal activity.

To support the longtime claims of discriminatory policing, a recently released study shows that African Americans make up 47 percent of the people arrested in San Francisco, despite being only 3 percent of the population, statistics that directly correlate with the attitudes of the racist officers patrolling the streets. These incidents come a year after six officers were indicted for multiple criminal conspiracies directed at the most vulnerable citizens of San Francisco. In addition, numerous citizens have come forward to recount their experiences of being sexually harassed and physically abused by SFPD officers.

To support the longtime claims of discriminatory policing, a recently released study shows that African Americans make up 47 percent of the people arrested in San Francisco, despite being only 3 percent of the population, statistics that directly correlate with the attitudes of the racist officers patrolling the streets.

The history of abuse shows that SFPD is engaging in a pattern and practice of misconduct that is ratified and condoned at the top of the command staff and works its way throughout the ranks of the department. The chief can and should set a tone that misconduct is unacceptable, but has failed to do so. By appointing an outside agency or independent police expert to evaluate the department’s policies and procedures, the public will be more accepting of the findings than if the chief issues them.

The mayor should join our request to the Department of Justice that they initiate a criminal investigation into the shooting as well as a pattern and pattern investigation into unconstitutional policing by San Francisco police officers.

Bay Area writer and publicist Lee Houskeeper can be reached at Newsservice@aol.com.

Mario Woods Protest at City Hall from Mission Local on Vimeo.