SF Chronicle: The Use of Force
By Seth Rosenfeld
The San Francsico Chronicle
San Francisco, Calif. - Officer Leslie Adams decided to pull the trigger in a split second, but years later the former San Francisco motorcycle officer still struggles with the memory of killing 20-year-old Johnie Williams.
"I feel very sad about it," Adams said in an interview. "I feel very bad about it. But I try not to deal with it, because I can't change anything."
From routine stop to shooting: an interactive illustration containing SFPD dispatch audio recorded at the time of the incident.
Adams was on routine traffic duty at Mission and 23rd streets on the morning of July 8, 1997, when he tried to stop Williams for an expired registration tag.
Williams was married, a stepfather who worked two jobs. But he and his passenger were on probation. And unknown to Adams, they had an open bottle of beer and a pistol in the car -- probation violations that could send them to jail.
Williams raced off, and Adams pursued him through the Mission District at speeds up to 70 mph. Cars and pedestrians scattered as the vehicles tore through the crowded neighborhood.
About three minutes later, Williams got stuck in rush-hour traffic, and Adams caught up. As stunned commuters watched, the officer drew his handgun and fired three shots at close range, fatally wounding Williams.
Adams said he was forced to shoot because Williams shifted into reverse and tried to run him down. A police investigation concluded the shooting was justified. The district attorney ruled it broke no law.
But an examination of police and court records shows the department did not report on what independent police practices experts said were violations of department policy and training in Adams' high-speed chase and confrontation.
The Chronicle examined the Williams shooting and three others that resulted in death or injury to civilians or officers. Subsequent lawsuits and Public Records Act requests required the Police Department to release records that shed light on the shootings and its investigations of them, which are not normally public. In each case, the city denied liability but paid a large settlement.
Last year, the department revised its rules for investigating police shootings in a renewed effort to ensure timely and complete inquiries. The department investigated the Williams shooting under the earlier rules, which were part of its previous effort to improve its shooting investigations. The problems that the experts cited in the Williams case illustrate some of the challenges facing the department as it again tries to improve its handling of officer-involved shootings.
Police Chief Heather Fong declined to comment on the Adams case, saying it had been reviewed by the department, the district attorney's office and the Office of Citizen Complaints. She noted that it occurred before she became chief in 2004.
Fong said the department has clear guidelines that spell out when officers may conduct pursuits and require supervisors to monitor them. The training unit later reviews the chases, she said, and can suggest more training.
Adams, who retired in 2001, discussed the incident in an interview with The Chronicle:
"You are so focused on the vehicle that you lose, well, you don't lose focus on everything going on around you, but it is kind of peripheral," Adams said of his pursuit of Williams. "You know you are coming on a red light, and this guy went through it. You should stop. You don't want to kill yourself. You are on a motorcycle.
"But you don't think about it because your adrenaline is so high and you are so focused on catching this guy or keeping up with him until you get help, that those other things you're aware of, but they are not, or they should be, in your priority list," he said.
Adams' experience fits a well-documented pattern in which officers engaged in tense high-speed pursuits often experience a kind of tunnel vision that can obscure their judgment, said Geoffrey Alpert, head of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina and a nationally recognized expert on police pursuits.
"You can lose a sense of reality in these things," Alpert said. "You can make horrible decisions. That's why training and supervision is so important."
That's also why Police Department rules require a supervisor to monitor the chase on the police radio. Officers must follow the supervisor's directions.
Adams said he recalled no supervisor doing that, partly because he was so caught up in the pursuit. Williams repeatedly swerved into oncoming lanes to run red lights, with Adams behind him. On 26th Street, the vehicles raced past a playground as they ran at least six stop signs.
"My adrenaline level and my blood pressure level was up significantly, my siren was going in my ear, and we are doing 70 miles per hour down the wrong side," he said. "So I've got to focus, and that wasn't one of them."
He added, "No one got on the air and told me to stop."
Police dispatch records show that no supervisor came on the line until after the pursuit.
As they headed east on 26th, Williams or his passenger threw the gun from the car. Adams would testify that he did not see that and never knew they had it.
Adams caught up after more than 2 miles, when Williams got stuck in traffic at Army (now Cesar Chavez) Street and Evans Avenue. Adams stopped about 8 feet behind the Olds, slightly to the left, he later told investigators. Straddling his motorcycle, he stood next to a flatbed truck and yelled at Williams to turn off the car.
The department's training workbook warns that traffic stops after a pursuit are "high risk." Officers should avoid making such stops in heavy traffic, it says, and they should request backup and wait for it, taking cover a safe distance from the suspect's vehicle.
When Williams' reverse lights came on, Adams found himself trapped. As the car backed up, he fired his handgun. The car struck his motorcycle, he said, and he fired two more shots.
"This all happened so quick," Adams said. "It wasn't very far. But see, you don't think about the position that you are getting yourself into until you are already in it. You are on a motorcycle, OK, there is no protection, and you don't have reverse.
"And you're in three lanes of congested traffic at a red light, but you are not thinking about all this when you put yourself in that position.
"You are just focused on this car and getting it stopped. And then all of a sudden when the backup lights go on, reality comes to you. That's when you realize that you are in a bad spot."
At one point in the interview, Adams said his tactics were proper. Had Williams driven forward, he said, things might have been fine.
But his car moved backward, Adams added, and, "now, I have made a tactical error by putting myself in the position that I was in."
Adams said Williams turned the car toward him and rammed his motorcycle, pushing his left handlebar grip and hand under the bed of the truck. Adams feared the truck might drive off, crushing him under its rear wheels. He was desperate.
"It's, you know, like falling in a fast-water river and trying to grab onto something to keep you afloat," he said. "You don't know if you are going to do it or not. It is very traumatic."
Independent police practices experts consulted by The Chronicle said Adams found himself in danger in large part because he did not follow basic training.
They said Adams erred, first, in conducting a high-speed pursuit through busy streets based on the car having expired registration.
"All he's got is a traffic violation," said Lou Reiter, a police trainer and retired deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, calling the chase "an unreasonable, unsafe pursuit." When Adams saw Williams was trapped in traffic, he should have called for backup and waited, he added.
Alpert said he should have taken cover instead of standing exposed, feet from Williams' car.
Adams said he suddenly found he had to shoot to defend his life.
"It was tragic," Adams said. "A 20-year-old kid lost his life. I don't know that I'll ever get over it." He said he still struggles with his memories of the shooting, which contributed to his decision to retire after 31 years on the force.
"All this was so unnecessary," he said. "In the end, when you come to find out what it was all about, it was senseless for him to run. And a lot of people would tell you that it was senseless for me to chase him."
The homicide investigation recounted Adams' statement that Williams' car turned toward Adams as it backed up. The homicide report did not discuss a diagram prepared by the traffic division that depicts the car driving straight back, grazing the motorcycle as it passes, and then veering into another car after Williams was shot.
Another police report showed there was minor damage to the motorcycle.
Adams was treated for a cut, scrapes and a sore back and released that day.
The department was required to send the Police Commission a summary that described the incident and any disciplinary action or training. The Oct. 14, 1998, summary did not note the pursuit involved high speeds, that Adams stopped 8 feet behind Williams, or any of the issues cited by the independent experts. It mentioned no discipline or training.
On Oct. 21, 1998, the Office of Citizen Complaints notified the department that it had concluded the shooting was within policy. But it said evidence "raised pressing issues" about department policy and training on police shootings around moving vehicles.
Chief Fong said officers are continuously trained how to conduct high-risk traffic stops safely.
In 2002, denying liability, the city settled a suit brought by attorney Eric Safire on behalf of Williams' family, paying $175,000 and forgiving $45,522.05 in hospital bills from the three days Williams lived after the shooting.
In a deposition for the lawsuit, Safire questioned Adams about his tactics. Officers are required to have a "working knowledge" of all department orders, and Safire asked Adams if he was familiar with the one on vehicle pursuits. At one point, Adams replied, "Not in detail," and at another point he replied, "Yes."
That order said officers should make a "reasonable" effort to apprehend fleeing violators, but "a pursuit shall never be carried to such an extent as to impose an unreasonable risk to persons or property."
"An unreasonable risk exists," the order says, "when the reason for apprehending the suspect is clearly outweighed by the danger to the persons or property, e.g., when the only reason for the pursuit is traffic violations or a misdemeanor, or a nonviolent felony."
Once officers begin a pursuit, the order said, they "must continually question whether the seriousness of the crime justifies continuing the pursuit."
Safire asked Adams if he had considered that balance.
"My thoughts were that he has to be running for more than expired tags," Adams said. "I chased him to find out why he was running."
Officer Leslie Adams