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Death on Shotwell street

[su_heading size=”30″ align=”left”]Latest fatal shooting by SFPD challenged by eyewitnesses[/su_heading]

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Conflicting accounts of what led to police killing Luis Demetrio Gongora Pat—the 45-year-old Mexican homeless man who was shot six times by Sgt. Nate Steger and officer Michael Mellone on April 7 in San Francisco’s Mission District—have outraged an already polarized community, which has become frustrated with the SFPD and its use of force.

According to San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr, who for nearly three hours addressed a hostile crowd during a town hall meeting on April 13, police were called at around 10 a.m. to Shotwell Street, between 18th and 19th streets, after Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) members reported a knife-wielding man in an “altered mental state, either mentally or chemically induced.”

According to Suhr, two units from Mission Station—later identified as Sgt. Steger and officer Mellone—arrived at the scene. Neither officer, according to Suhr, had received de-escalation training, although Mellone had received crisis intervention training (CIT).

A home surveillance video, released anonymously to the San Francisco Chronicle shortly after the shooting, shows the officers pulling up to the scene in different patrol vehicles. The video, however, didn’t capture the actual shooting. It did capture the third officer, who did speak Spanish, arriving as the shots were being fired.

According to officer interviews, Steger and Mellone contacted Gongora, who was seated on the sidewalk holding a knife with the blade pointed up. The officers reiterated to Suhr that they ordered Gongora to drop the knife multiple times. Gongora briefly placed the knife down with his hand still on the handle, only to quickly pick it up again.

In the video, the first officer can be seen exiting his vehicle and walking towards the sidewalk, cocking an orange less-than-lethal beanbag shotgun. Six seconds after exiting his vehicle, the officer can be seen pointing the shotgun and shouting “Get on the ground” twice, while a second officer approached. Nearly 10 seconds after the first series of commands, the officers can be heard again shouting, “Get on the ground,” followed by “Put that down,” before the initial beanbag round was fired. After the fourth beanbag round was discharged, a volley of lethal gunfire can be heard through the video.

According to Suhr, Gongora was shot with the less-than-lethal beanbag shotgun “in an effort to disarm him.” After the beanbag rounds were fired, officers told interviewers that Gongora stood up and ran at one of the officers with a knife in his hand. After being shot at seven times, and struck six times with .40 caliber rounds, Gongora fell to the ground.

“Officers secured the knife that was still held,” Suhr said.

Contradictory narratives

Suhr reiterated this account to the public and media, but eyewitness testimony documented through various media outlets have contradicted SFPD’s version of events.

Eyewitness Smith Patrick, a resident of Shotwell Street for the last 14 years, said she had a completely unobstructed view looking down from her apartment’s four large windows. By the time she heard the second “get on the ground” command, she said she was at her window looking at police approaching Gongora, who was already seated on the ground.

“This is where you could never tell which happened first. He started to get up, and the guy with the rifle beanbag started to shoot. So they said he was rushing at them. Let me tell you, that’s impossible,” Patrick told El Tecolote, describing the police as moving parallel to Shotwell Street, inching up toward Gongora. “And he never went straight toward them. When I heard that he ‘rushed toward them,’ I’m thinking, ‘How could they interpret it that way?’ What that says to me is that someone is intentionally moving toward you quickly”

Patrick continued: “As soon as he got up, he was recoiling. Not even with coordination. His body was spasmodically being hit, and recoiling from being hit until he fell. His body was traveling north, but he was not in a straight line rushing toward them ever—ever. They certainly did not give him time to respond at all. I interpret the events of what happened very differently from the official police statement.”

Patrick also said that while Gongora was being shot, she saw a knife fall from his body, countering the police version that he was still holding the knife once he fell.

Patrick’s neighbor, Robert Whitworth, likewise witnessed the incident.

“I remember everything clearly up to the point of the bean-bag shots, but things become fuzzier after,” Whitworth told El Tecolote. “I don’t believe Luis rushed him, but I’m fully aware that he could have rushed him. As we know eyewitness accounts are full of errors.

“As far as I remember he jumped up,” said Whitworth. “He did not rush or charge.”

A rough time in life

Gongora, a native of Teabo, Yucatan, was living in the homeless encampment on Shotwell Street after being evicted from his apartment at Market and Valencia streets in 2012, according to his friend Matthew Castro.

“He was my best friend for about a decade,” said Castro, who first met Gongora in 2003 while working as a waiter at Mel’s Drive-In. He described Gongora as kind-hearted, selfless, and docile. “Things happen, and he ended up on the street. After I saw the video, [the police] didn’t get a chance to talk to him.”

Andres Ek, another friend of Gongora, met him in 2001 and worked with him for 11 years. He last saw Gongora on Easter Sunday, and bought him some food.

“He showed me how to work, how to wash dishes. He was a good coworker,” Ek said. “He was a great worker. He didn’t how to read, he didn’t know any of that—same as me.”

Neighbors Patrick and Whitworth also knew Gongora as the “soccer guy,” who could always be found on Shotwell Street kicking and bouncing his ball.

Patrick said that she has seen her fair share of bike thieves, drug dealers and prostitutes having lived on Shotwell Street for 14 years, but she always considered Gongora as a person “having a rough time in life,” and she was shocked when she heard police say that he had “rushed” at them with a knife.

“That doesn’t fit him at all,” Patrick said. “There are guys over there who I would cross the street to be away from them, but Luis wasn’t one of them.  In fact, I would look him in the eye and say hello.”

Since the town hall, Surh and the SFPD have been accused of scheduling the meeting during an odd hour to prevent community involvement. Suhr said the SFPD is committed to having a town hall in the area and around the time when the officer-involved shooting occurred. That explanation, however, was not received well with many of those in attendance.

District 9 Supervisor David Campos, who has attended town halls in response to officer-involved shootings in his district before, echoed his disappointment with Suhr and the department.

“If this town hall meeting is so important, why wasn’t my office informed of it?” asked Campos. “And I know that if I wasn’t informed of it, then there are many residents of this community, who don’t even know that this meeting is happening. And if the objective is to maximize community involvement, why would you have a community meeting at noon, in the middle of the week.”

“I’m sorry chief, but if someone gets shot at 2 in the morning, I doubt that you’re going to have a community meeting at 2 in the morning,” Campos continued.

Suhr said that there are three independent investigations currently ongoing—one by the Homicide Division, another by the District Attorney’s office and another by the Office of Citizen’s Complaints.

A GoFundMe page has been set up for Gongora. In two days, more than $2,000 has been raised. Funds raised will go towards financially supporting his widow and children, as well as to various organizing efforts. The Mexican Consulate has processed humanitarian visas for the family. Gongora’s wake will be on Saturday, April 23 at Duggan’s at 3434 17th St., from 5 p.m. – 9 p.m. His family is requesting that media not attend the wake for interviews.

—John Morrison contributed to this report

Story by: Alexis Terrazas