Shooting of homeless man shows need for sincere change in SFPD

by Lisa Marie Alatorre, Coalition on Homelessness

San Francisco – A shooting by police officers of a homeless man camping on Shotwell Street near 18th Street occurred in the Mission Thursday, April 7. On Friday, the Medical Examiner identified the victim as 45-year-old Luis Gongora, a San Francisco resident. While we do not have complete information, reports from eyewitnesses raise several red flags:

  1. The victim was non-English speaking and likely did not understand police commands.
  2. The man was camping in a tent on Shotwell and likely has been the victim of the numerous “sweeps” that have taken place in the general area. Division Street was the most well known, but sweeps and citing of homeless people surrounding Division have taken place regularly since.
  3. The man may have been in possession of a knife, but eyewitnesses have contradicted this statement.
  4. Eyewitnesses report he was lying down and not resisting when shot.
SFPD-murder-victim-Luis-Luigi-Gongora-45-died-here-040716-by-Adriana-Camarena-225x300, Shooting of homeless man shows need for sincere change in SFPD, Local News & Views
SFPD took the life of Luis “Luigi” Gongora, 45, here on the sidewalk at 18th and Shotwell, where he lived, leaving his blood for the world to see. – Photo: Adriana Camarena

This shooting happened less than 24 hours after a late-night Police Commission meeting at which members of the Police Officers Association (POA) fought against changes to the Department General Order (DGO) concerning use of force.

The POA has called for a policy worse than the status quo: They have pushed to bring language back two decades, before the old policy was updated. This conservatism fails to recognize the deep problems inside SFPD that have surfaced in recent years.

The only changes they recommend are additional weapons. At last night’s meeting, members of the public predicted that more police shootings would take place unless systemic change occurred.

On top of the need for language accessibility and halting the criminalization of homeless people, there were five things the Coalition on Homelessness called for in the new DGO last night:

1) Substitute language requiring “minimal” instead of “reasonable” force

In the past, many cities have sanctioned “reasonable” force by police officers. The current best practice is to push officers instead to use “minimal” force: Instead of asking herself, “Am I being reasonable right now?” an officer should be asking, “Could I safely use less force?”

This perspective has found wide acceptance even among police: The Police Executive Research Forum, in its report, “Re-Engineering Training of Police Use of Force,” recommends “minimal use of force.” Another January 2015 report, “Use of Force: Taking Policing to a Higher Standard,” states that police departments should hold themselves to a higher standard than minimum legal requirements.

Many cities have done just that and used language of “minimal force,” including New Orleans, Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Portland, Albuquerque, Seattle, Milwaukee and Oakland, to name just a few. San Francisco set trends in 1995 with the use of “minimal” in their general order.

We should not settle for the lowest possible bar: While valuing officer safety, we must also embrace sanctity of civilian life.

2) Make de-escalation mandatory

Throughout the DGO, use of de-escalation techniques must be mandatory. We strongly recommend that language should state that officers “shall” use verbal de-escalation when feasible and safe. The proposed language recognizes that officers must decide when de-escalation techniques are reasonable and safe: It is not an unreasonable constraint.

But saying that officers “may” employ verbal de-escalation allows officers to choose not to avoid violence. There are many cites that include “will,” “shall,” “must” instead of the lukewarm language of “should” or “may;” among these are New Orleans, Albuquerque, Chicago and Cleveland.

3) Remove electronic control weapons from the discussion

In the midst of trying to move forward as a department to address the very real issues associated with current use of force policies, SFPD decided to introduce electronic control weapons (usually known by the brand name “Tasers”) as part of that discussion. While there is broad community support for DGOs that support the sanctity of life, time and distance, and de-escalation, the introduction of an often lethal weapon is tremendously controversial, and threatens to undermine the ability of SFPD and community groups to work together.

In one of the few independent studies done on these weapons by UCSF, they found an average six-fold increase in in-custody deaths and a twofold increase in officer-involved shootings in the first year following the adoption of Tasers. In subsequent years, deaths declined, but remained higher than in the base year. Eagerness for a new weapon that has led to an increase in civilian deaths is not consistent with valuing the sanctity of human life.

4) Consider and implement the Crisis Intervention Team DGO

We need to fully operationalize the Crisis Intervention Team to prevent officer-involved shootings. This successful model has been shown to decrease critical incidents by training an elite corps of police in de-escalation techniques.

The program originated in Memphis but has been successfully replicated in dozens of cities throughout the country. CIT has only been partially implemented in San Francisco: The Department has focused on training but has been missing the operations component.

5) Ensure data collection on use of force

This is clearly needed: If we as a community want to decrease deaths from officer-involved shootings, we must have transparent information on use of force that is accessible to the public. This should be outlined in the DGO.

Lisa Marie Alatorre, human rights organizer at San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness, can be reached at