In April 2014, I received a call from someone inside the San Francisco Police Department. “You should look into the shooting of that dog at the projects,” he said. “You need to read the police report …” The dog, named Duke, was a 13-month-old male pit bull mix puppy belonging to Esther Ioane, who perished along with her 3-year-old son, Santana, and a second family dog in a fire that engulfed their unit at the Sunnydale public housing complex. Ioane’s devastated boyfriend, Raymond Jojola, adopted Duke, the lone survivor. “He was all I had left,” Jojola told me tearfully in a phone interview. But just one week later, Duke would be dead, too.
On April 23, San Francisco police officers responded to Sunnydale on a domestic violence call in a building near Jojola’s residence. In the police report, Officer Karl Ma says that he and six other officers were at the scene. “I heard numerous gun shots from the other side of the building,” Ma writes in the report. “Ofc. Dominguez advised me that he had discharged his firearm at an off leash pitbull that advanced toward him and Ofc. Hart in an aggressive manner.”
Officer Ma later states that he spoke to Jojola, who “apologized for Duke charging at the officers,” and that Jojola said, “Duke ran out the front door off leash and charged the officers.” But Jojola and other Sunnydale residents tell a very different story. “We just got back from the wake,” Jojola explained. “People were coming in and out and the door was open. Duke got spooked when he heard the commotion and ran outside … I was right behind him, calling his name, and he was heading to me — his back was to the police when there was a bunch of shots. I think it was the second or third shot that got him in the backside.”
Duke was the second dog in as many months shot in the back by SFPD. Both died of their injuries. The police reports in both incidents stated that the dogs were “aggressive and charging,” but witnesses and evidence contradicted their accounts. When I began digging deeper, I found a pattern of erroneous “aggressive and charging” claims resulting in fatal shots to the back that extended beyond Duke’s death to the deaths of human beings.
As I wrote in my May 2015 Reynolds Rap (“Yes Suhr, it’s time for you to go”), since Greg Suhr was appointed chief of police by Mayor Ed Lee in 2011, the SFPD has been plagued with controversy, from racist and homophobic texts among officers to questionable shooting deaths involving young men of color. On March 21, 2014, police shot and killed 27-year-old Alejandro Nieto, a criminal justice student at City College of San Francisco. Nieto, who carried a Taser for his night job as a security officer, stopped to eat a burrito at Bernal Heights Park on his way to work when officers, responding to reports of a man brandishing a gun, shot and killed him. Suhr supported his officers, stating that Nieto, who had a history of mental health issues, pointed the Taser at officers. The medical examiner’s report is nonetheless disturbing, showing Nieto died from 14 to 15 gunshot wounds, including a shot to the forehead and three from behind.
On Feb. 26, 2015, police shot and killed Guatemalan immigrant Amilcar Pérez-López in the Mission District. Suhr again corroborated the report by his officers, who said they shot a lunging, knife-wielding Pérez-López “in fear for their lives.” However, an independent autopsy commissioned by the family contradicted Suhr’s account, finding that Pérez-López was shot four times in the back, once in the arm, and once in the back of the head. This past February, the medical examiner’s autopsy backed up the independent account.
In the year since I penned that column about Suhr, two more men have been shot and killed. No one can dispute the reason police responded to the Bayview District on Dec. 2, 2015 — Mario Woods, who had an extensive criminal record at 26 years of age, had just slashed a stranger with a knife — but it’s the excessive use of force that once again is called into question. Witness cell phone videos show Woods, completely surrounded by officers, slumped against a wall holding what appears to be a small kitchen knife. Minutes after pepper spray and beanbags have little effect, Woods dies in a barrage of bullets by what the Bayview’s supervisor, Malia Cohen, described as “an ethnically diverse firing squad.”
On April 7, 2015, police responded to a homeless encampment after outreach workers reported seeing a man with a knife. In video footage, three officers walk off-screen shouting at 45-year-old Luis Gongora to drop his weapon, which bystanders say was a 10-inch chef’s knife. Just 30 seconds later, the sound of beanbags being fired is immediately followed by seven gunshots. In yet another community meeting, Suhr defended his officers, saying that they “feared being stabbed by Gongora” as the crowd shouted “Fire Chief Suhr.” In the past, Suhr has been confident, even defiant at these gatherings, but for the first time he appeared beleaguered and insecure.
This past December I was invited to appear as a guest on KPOO, a radio station highly regarded for its coverage of local and national issues in the black community. News director Harrison Chastang introduced me by pointing out that I was the only journalist calling for Suhr to step down nearly a year prior to the shooting of Woods. “What do you think the answer is?” Chastang asked. Carrying Tasers? San Francisco is one of only two of the nation’s largest cities not to equip officers with stun guns, so maybe it’s worth trying. Replacing Suhr? Going outside of the tight-knit SFPD could certainly bring fresh perspective to a troubled department, but with an ineffectual mayor like Ed Lee, that seems unlikely. Conflict-resolution training? Always a good idea, but some of the officers involved in the Woods shooting had special training (as did officers involved in the Gongora shooting).
As I told Chastang, I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know there’s a culture within the department, starting at the top, that needs a good, hard look and some big change. Suhr can’t continue defending officers who kill people holding kitchen knives in a hail of gunfire.
It’s also time for the SFPD to acknowledge what seems like the simplest of truths: You can’t be shot in the back if you’re charging forward.