San Francisco police change gun policy in wake of fatal OIS
The policy change has the police union crying foul but is supported by law enforcement experts and watchdogs
By Vivian Ho
San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco police officers who point a gun at a person must now report the action to their supervisors as a use of force incident, according to a bulletin quietly issued in the wake of the Mario Woods shooting.
The policy change has the police union crying foul but is supported by law enforcement experts and watchdogs who see it as an important step toward transparency.
The bulletin, issued Dec. 11, requires on-duty officers who intentionally point a firearm at someone to justify their action to their supervisors in either the incident report, a supplemental report or in a statement.
It is the latest move by Police Chief Greg Suhr in response to the public outrage over the Dec. 2 shooting death of Mario Woods. Suhr, who is under pressure from critics to resign, has also begun stocking patrol cars with riot shields and looking into the department’s range training. The Police Commission has reopened the discussion on the department’s use-of-force policy, which will include a debate over whether to equip officers with stun guns.
Officers previously did not have to take such measures for pointing a gun at a person, and Police Officers Association President Martin Halloran has called for the policy be suspended until union representatives can meet with department heads about the “change in working conditions.”
Police Department officials declined to comment on the bulletin Tuesday.
Law enforcement experts say other police departments already categorize pointing a gun at a person as use of force, and requiring officers to report the act to their supervisors can lower use-of-force incidents by forcing them to reconsider their actions.
“There are just a lot of departments that are realizing that it’s a pretty big act,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina who studies police use of force. “Bottom line is, you can’t use it if you don’t unholster it. You’re not going to pull the trigger unless you pull the gun out.”
The Oakland Police Department adopted this policy as part of “The Riders” police misconduct settlement, said civil rights attorney John Burris, who handled that lawsuit and is also representing the Woods family.
Burris said use-of-force incidents have dropped in Oakland since the department began enforcing this policy.
“When they have to account for a use of force and be held accountable for it, then it lowers the likelihood of them pulling the guns when they shouldn’t be pulling the guns,” he said.
Though the investigations into the Woods shooting is still ongoing, Burris said the case is a good example of why officers should be forced to think about using their guns. Woods’ family said they thought he was in mental distress at the time, something that could be exacerbated with a crowd of officers pointing guns.
Woods died shortly after he was shot by at least five officers in the Bayview District on Dec. . He was the suspect in a stabbing, and police say he was still armed with the kitchen knife used in the crime.
The chief said the officers — identified Friday as Winson Seto, Antonio Santos, Charles August, Nicholas Cuevas and Scott Phillips — had no choice but to use lethal force after attempts to disarm Woods with beanbag rounds and pepper spray were unsuccessful.
Burris said he thinks the new policy will lessen the chance of accidental shootings.
“You have more opportunity of misinterpretation of innocent movements when you have a number of different people with guns drawn who are willing to shoot on a reflex,” he said. “You have the possibility of one officer shooting because of an innocent movement, and the other officers shooting in support. That is just what happens when you have that many people with their guns out when they shouldn’t be out.”
Tony Ribera, a former San Francisco police chief and director of the International Institute of Law Enforcement Leadership at the University of San Francisco, said while some officers may balk at the idea of having to do more paperwork, the new policy will protect officers and the department.
“As a patrol officer, I was as reluctant to do paperwork as any other officer,” Ribera said. “You didn’t want to do paperwork — you wanted to be out on the streets. It’s pretty much accepted that officers don’t want to do paperwork, and I appreciate that. But we are in a much more litigious society now than I was when I was an officer. It’s important that we document these things.”
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