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No charges filed in OIS that prompted resignation of SF police chief

District Attorney George Gascón cited "insufficient evidence" while clearing Sgt. Justin Erb in the death of 29-year-old Jessica Williams


Vivian Ho
San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón declined to file charges Wednesday against a city police officer whose fatal shooting of a car-theft suspect in the Bayview neighborhood in May 2016 prompted the resignation of Police Chief Greg Suhr.

Gascón cited “insufficient evidence” while clearing Sgt. Justin Erb in the death of 29-year-old Jessica Williams, a homeless woman who was unarmed and high on methamphetamine when Erb and a second officer approached her on foot as she sat in a stolen Honda Accord on a dead-end street.

According to a 21-page report by prosecutors, the two officers said Erb shot Williams once in the chest after she tried to drive off, immediately crashed into a truck, backed up and then drove in Erb’s direction.

A federal wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Williams’ mother accused Erb of using excessive force, suggesting he was not directly threatened by Williams or the car. But Gascón said experts who reconstructed the scene placed Erb “within the Honda Accord’s potential path” when he fired on the morning of May 19, 2016.

“All of the available evidence suggests Sergeant Erb faced a volatile and unpredictable situation looking uphill at an approaching car when he fired his gun at Williams,” the district attorney’s office said. “The available evidence does not support the conclusion that Sergeant Erb’s use of deadly force was objectively unreasonable.”

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi said Wednesday he was outraged by the decision.

“I’m flabbergasted that the DA is saying it is okay to shoot at a person who appears to have been fleeing in a car,” Adachi said in a statement. “How can you justify shooting a person when you easily could have stepped out of the way?”

The shooting happened at time when police leaders and watchdogs in San Francisco sought to stop officers from firing on vehicles and drivers, echoing concerns by the U.S. Department of Justice that the practice endangers bystanders and can lead officers to put themselves in a bad position — one in which they feel they must use their gun.

The city Police Commission has since amended the department’s use-of-force policy to prohibit firing on moving vehicles, except in extraordinary circumstances.

According to Gascón, investigators located only three witnesses to the 9:40 a.m. shooting on secluded Helena Street in the shadow of Interstate 280, including Erb and his partner, Officer Eric Eastlund.

They were conducting an operation to recover boosted cars when they came across the Honda Accord, which had been reported stolen. They parked and approached the car on foot, Erb with his pistol drawn and pointed down. Both were in uniform.

Williams was reclined in the driver’s seat, and when the officers knocked on her window, she “sat up, started the car, and sped off before crashing into a parked utility truck approximately 75 feet away,” the report stated.

After Erb ran to the driver’s side to try to arrest Williams, she put the car in reverse, driving “right at Officer Eastlund, who was standing in the street behind the car,” the report stated. Eastlund told investigators that he hurried out of the way, while drawing his pistol, before Williams paused and rolled forward toward Erb. An accident reconstruction expert hired by prosecutors estimated the car’s speed at this point at roughly 7 mph.

“I thought she was going to punch it again and if she had, then I would have got run over and I would have had nowhere to go,” Erb told investigators. “I was afraid for my life.”

He was positioned to the front left of the car, and fired one shot through the driver’s side window, striking Williams in the chest. The car continued moving forward before hitting the same truck it had crashed into moments before, the report said.

The third witness, a woman babysitting in a nearby home, corroborated much of the officers’ accounts, according to the report, saying she thought the driver “wanted to run the cop over.”

The report said a man who had shared a tent with Williams reported that he had been asleep during the shooting in a stolen Honda Civic parked behind the Accord. He told investigators an unidentified person had given them the cars about three hours before the shooting.

The man, identified only as Daniel R., said the two had used methamphetamine before the shooting, and Williams’ autopsy report showed she had the drug in her system.

Hours after the shooting, Suhr resigned at the request of Mayor Ed Lee. Calls for his ouster had begun six months prior, after the video-recorded police killing of Mario Woods in the Bayview, a case that Gascón’s office is still reviewing.

After the Woods shooting, the Police Commission reopened the department’s use-of-force policy for the first time in years. In addition to emphasizing using minimal force and preserving the sanctity of life, the new policy, which passed in December, prohibits officers from firing at a vehicle except in very limited circumstances, such as when a driver is also using a gun.

The police union fought the policy change, saying officers needed to be allowed to shoot at cars when a driver is using the car as a weapon. Commissioners added a caveat to the policy’s preamble that they said would allow for officers to use their judgment in extraordinary situations.

The district attorney’s office said that in this case, Erb “had no legal duty to retreat under long-standing California self-defense law. As a result, questions about whether he could have run out of the oncoming Accord’s path and found adequate cover do not alter the criminal legal analysis due to California self-defense law.”

Adachi disputed the analysis and said it “sends the wrong message to our citizens and the police.”

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©2017 the San Francisco Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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