A video of a racially charged, fatal San Francisco police shooting “casts doubt” on officers’ accounts that a black man was moving quickly toward them when they shot, a federal judge wrote in a court ruling.
U.S. District Judge William Orrick’s ruling Tuesday denied San Francisco’s attempt to toss a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Mario Woods, a 26-year-old black man officers fatally shot in December 2015.
The shooting touched off weeks of protest over the treatment of minorities and led to changes within the police department. It came during heightened tensions nationwide over police killings of black men.
Woods was suspected of stabbing a man when officers found him standing at transit stop. Several officers surrounded Woods in a semicircle and shot him with “non-lethal” rubber bullets after they said he refused to drop a knife, according to depositions.
Videos taken by bystanders show Woods staggering out of the semicircle and sliding his right side against a wall as he tried to walk away and one of the officers scurrying to get in front of him.
At that point, five officers shot Woods a combined 21 times.
The officers testified that they believed Woods was walking quickly toward the officer who was trying to cut him off and that’s why they fired.
“Videos cast doubt on the officer accounts that Woods was moving quickly or speeding up when officers shot him,” Orrick wrote. “They seem to show him take four slow steps with his right shoulder up against the building, walking with a heavy limp. The knife was in Woods’ right hand, on the building side.”
Lawyers for the city had sought dismissal of the lawsuit by arguing the officers acted reasonably.
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon in May said there was insufficient evidence to criminally charge the officers.
Gascon expressed frustration over the high-profile cases that brought national attention, saying he did not believe the officers should have killed the men but he was bound by law not to press charges.
The fatal shooting was the first among several in the city within a short period, leading then-Police Chief Greg Suhr to resign and San Francisco to ask the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct a review of the Police Department and its policies. The Justice Department recommended nearly 300 changes to the force.
Current Police Chief Bill Scott was hand-picked by late Mayor Ed Lee in January 2017 to oversee the reforms, rebuild community trust and institute new use-of-force policies focused on de-escalation.
Earlier this year, the San Francisco Police Department became the first in the U.S. to voluntarily agree to state oversight after the federal government ended the Obama-era Justice Department program aimed at easing community tensions.