January 22, 2016
The final chapter of Mario Woods’ life began when he slashed a stranger for no apparent reason and ended with him staring at the barrel of a San Francisco police officer’s gun and saying, “You better squeeze that … and kill me.”
That’s the account provided by officers who were on the scene of an incident that has caused an uproar in the city and shaken both the Police Department and Mayor Ed Lee’s administration.
Within minutes of when he first defied police efforts to arrest him, Woods, 26, lay dead on a Bayview district sidewalk, shot by as many as 15 rounds fired by five officers.
The incident was witnessed by middle school children passing on a Muni bus — including two youngsters who filmed the shooting on their cell phones.
Police, the district attorney and Office of Citizen Complaints are investigating the shooting, with an eye toward whether the officers broke the law or department rules. Investigators are relying only in part on the viral video that bystanders filmed.
Police documents obtained by The Chronicle — including statements by some of the officers who were there — provide fresh insights into the events leading up to a shooting that has put Police Chief Greg Suhr’s job on the line, and reopened debates over the department’s use of force and its treatment of the African American community.
Man reports slashing
The incident began at about 4 p.m. on Dec. 2, when officers were dispatched to San Francisco General Hospital to take a report from a 26-year-old Bayview man who had been slashed in the upper arm, according to police documents.
The man, whose name police have withheld for his protection, told officers that he and a female friend had been eating in a car parked in front of an apartment building at 6670 Third St. when they saw a man “walking back and forth on the sidewalk talking,” according to investigators who interviewed the victim.
“The suspect was not making sense and appeared to be under the influence of something,” according to the police report on the interview.
The assailant then reached into the passenger’s side of the car with a knife, prompting the man seated there to “open the door to push the suspect away,” the police report says.
When the man got out of the car, the assailant slashed him across the left shoulder.
Bleeding heavily, the victim fled and showed up a short time later at San Francisco General. Two officers responding to the crime scene — aided by a neighbor who saw the attack — briefly spotted the suspect but lost track of him. The police radioed in a description, and more officers were called in to search.
‘You’re not taking me’
Within minutes, two officers spotted Woods, who matched the suspect’s description, waiting to board a Muni bus at Third Street and Fitzgerald Avenue. When the officers got out of their car, the man “began to backpedal,” according to the statement provided by the partner of Officer
Charles August, who would soon become a central figure in the shooting.
Woods “then grabbed a knife out of his jeans pocket and said something to the effect of, ‘You’re not taking me today,’” wrote the partner, whose named was redacted from the documents provided to us.
The partner reported that he and August then drew their guns and told Woods “to drop the knife.”
That’s when August’s partner says he heard Woods say, “You better squeeze that mother— and kill me.”
Then Woods turned south on Third, and the officers radioed for backup while repeatedly ordering him to drop the knife, police documents say. More officers arrived, some of them armed with weapons that fire nonlethal beanbags filled with lead shot.
The first beanbag round, shot from a 12-gauge weapon, “had no effect,” August’s partner wrote. Police then hit Woods with two more rounds, including one that struck his leg, causing the limp that Woods displayed in the videos of the police confrontation. Still, Woods wouldn’t drop the knife.
When a fourth beanbag was fired using a more powerful 40mm gun, the officer said, “The subject appeared to be stunned and crouched to one knee but still refused to drop his knife. … (He) quickly regained his balance and stood back up.”
At that point, another officer tried to subdue Woods using pepper spray. He didn’t appear to react, the police accounts say.
“I then noticed a large crowd of people behind me,” said August’s partner. “I walked toward the crowd to advise them to back up when I saw the subject with the knife still in hand begin to walk toward the crowd.”
Stepping into path
As Woods headed toward the bystanders, August tried to cut him off, the police accounts say. In the videos of the shooting, he can be seen stepping into Woods’ path.
“I yelled, ‘Back up!’ as loud as I could at the crowd when I heard multiple gunshots,” August’s partner said.
Did the police overreact? Was the crowd at risk? Would Woods still be alive if police had Tasers or were trained to use less force when confronted with weapons? Those are questions being looked at by investigators and the broader forums of City Hall and public opinion.
Some of the racial element in the case has been defused by the fact that August and his partner are African American, as Woods was.
As for why Woods didn’t simply drop the knife? There are no shortage of theories. He had an extensive criminal record, including a prison stint for armed robbery that ended in 2014. Since he’d gotten out, he’d earned his high school GED and landed a job at a delivery company, which could well have been jeopardized if he were hit with a new criminal charge.
Pepper spray, bean bags
Investigators are also awaiting the results of toxicology results that could shed light on how Woods was able to walk away from a dose of pepper spray and four beanbag blasts.
Even if those findings cast Woods in a poor light, that won’t justify the police shooting, said John Burris, the attorney representing his family.
“Failure to cooperate is not a basis to use deadly force,” Burris said. “There are lots of way to subdue a person with an edged weapon without creating a confrontation.”
What’s more, Burris said, for all Woods’ alleged noncooperation with police, “the evidence from the video suggests he did not in any way lunge at the officer.”
As Burris tells it, Woods was looking to the future and trying to get his life together. “He was not looking to be self-destructive,” the attorney said, “or suicidal.”