Police officers almost as likely to shoot at moving cars as suspects with guns 

click to enlarge The fatal officer-involved shooting of Alejandro Nieto in March is one of the recent incidents the public has rallied against. - MIKE KOOZMIN/S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • MIKE KOOZmin/s.f. examiner file photo
  • The fatal officer-involved shooting of Alejandro Nieto in March is one of the recent incidents the public has rallied against.

In June 2011, the FBI called San Francisco police and told them a man wanted for robbing a bank in Southern California was in town. Or, at least, his getaway car was. In fact, it was a block away from Buena Vista Park.

So, when Sgt. Scott Ryan and Officer Albert Lieu, two plainclothes officers, rolled through the hilly neighborhood just east of Buena Vista Park and came upon a gray BMW, they knew the suspected bank robber wasn't far off.

When the pair approached the car with other officers, the robber put the BMW in reverse and rammed a car. After police repeatedly told the suspect to give himself up, the man aimed his car at officers. Ryan and Lieu opened fire, killing the suspect. Both officers were subsequently awarded medals of valor from the Police Department for their action in the incident deemed in policy, which means the men acted within the department's rules of engagement.

In the weeks following the killing of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., many have taken a second look at the conduct of local law enforcement agencies. Questions have centered on when lethal incidents are warranted and the transparency and thoroughness of subsequent investigations.

That is equally true in San Francisco where protesters just last week marched through the Mission claiming the shooting death of Alejandro Nieto in March was unwarranted and the department's conduct in the days after the incident were anything but transparent. The names of the officers have yet to be released for security reasons and the investigation into the incident will probably last for years. Nieto, according to police, allegedly drew a stun gun and aimed it at officers.

As part of an ongoing series looking into police-involved shootings, The San Francisco Examiner analyzed all such recorded incidents since 2000 to gain an understanding of when and why police use lethal force.

San Francisco police are nearly as likely to shoot at someone driving at them in a car as someone with a gun, but suspects with a knife are more likely to die from an officer's gunshot, according to an Examiner analysis of data obtained from the Police Department listing all officer-involved shootings for the last 14 years.

In the majority of officer-involved shootings since 2000, the suspects had a gun, but in 26 cases, no weapon was present other than a vehicle. In 17 cases, the suspect was armed with a knife, hammer or other hand-held weapon.

Take for instance the January 2006 shooting death of a troublesome customer at a restaurant at Geneva and Mission streets. Outside the restaurant, the suspect tried to fire a gun at officers Eric Chiang and Greg Buhagiar, who both opened fire and killed the man.

The incident was in policy.

In nine cases, suspects turned out to have no weapon, three resulting in death and three others in injuries.

For example, in November 2005, Officer Noel De Leon was off duty and returning to his car when he found a man inside who resisted arrest. De Leon fired his gun and wounded the unarmed man, an incident deemed in policy.

But more people died at the hands of police when wielding knives and the like -- 12 -- than those with guns.

One of those cases is the Jan. 27, 2008, incident in which an aggressive panhandler at Lombard Street and Van Ness Avenue was shot and killed by Officer Joshua Olson after the suspect pulled a knife and came at Olson.

The incident was in policy.

Still, gun-wielding suspects were wounded 17 times, which is more often than the 11 wounded in car-related incidents or the five with knives.

Such incidents also wounded and in some cases killed officers. Five officers have died from self-inflicted gunshot wounds in that time period. Four were wounded by self-inflicted gunshots and two were injured by other officers accidentally firing their weapons.

These startling facts come from a list of officer-involved shootings obtained by The Examiner from 2000 to the present. The incidents exclude suicides and accidents and often involved multiple officers.

A Public Records Act request revealed that 376 officers have been involved in shooting incidents since 1990.

According to the department's general orders on officers firing their gun, the police officer must be in imminent mortal danger or risk of bodily harm to do so. The same must be true if an officer fires a gun to defend another person. Shooting at a moving car is only allowed in similar circumstances or when someone has committed a violent felony and there is reasonable cause for them to do so again.

Eight officers have died in the line of duty since 2000.

The Police Department and the San Francisco Police Officers Association did not respond to requests for comment.

Police Shootings in San Francisco

91: Officer-involved shootings incidents since 2000

33: People killed since 2000 in officer-involved shootings

61: Officer-involved shooting cases found to be in policy since 2000

16: Shootings found to be out of policy

Source: Police Department

About The Author

Jonah Owen Lamb

Jonah Owen Lamb

Bio:
Born and raised on a houseboat in Sausalito, Lamb has written for newspapers in New York City, Utah and the San Joaquin Valley. He was most recently an editor at the San Luis Obispo Tribune for nearly three years. He has written for The S.F. Examiner since 2013 and covers criminal justice and planning.
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