Officer-Involved Shooting at Owens and Mariposa Streets

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On May 19th, shots rang out under the Interstate-280 overpass at Mariposa and Owens streets. An altercation between two unhoused men turned into a roughly nine-minute struggle involving multiple knives that ultimately left both dead from lethal rounds discharged by the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD). SFPD provided a detailed breakdown of the officer-involved shooting during a virtual meeting on May 27th. 

At around 7:48 p.m., San Francisco Department of Emergency Management dispatchers received a call about an aggravated assault taking place under the I-280 overpass. The caller, who was driving eastbound, told the 911 operator that they saw a “houseless person with two large sticks beating the crap out of what looks like a shelter…violently beating it over and over and over again.” The individual was described as a dark-skinned male in his 60s, roughly five foot eight inches, bald, wearing a yellow and blue hoodie and dark bands, with two batons the size of baseball bats. 

The subject’s “…face was very angry as he was crossing the street with two batons,” reported the caller. “We were wondering what he was up to. We look over and he starts beating the crap out of a brown tarp.” 

Video captured by the caller’s partner from the car reveals shadows of a person beating a shelter covered by tarps with a stick. After a few seconds of violent hitting, a second person’s shadow emerges from the shelter.

Bayview Police Station officers arrived at 8:01 p.m. After observing two individuals on the ground struggling, one of whom met the caller’s description, the other individual with a knife, officers radioed dispatch to place an ambulance on standby and requested more units. 

The subject matching the caller’s description was later identified as 49-year-old Rafael Mendoza. The second individual, a white male wearing a yellow shirt, was recognized as 57-year-old Michael MacFhionghain.  Both subjects were lying on their backs, with Mendoza struggling to hold back MacFhionghain’s wrist with the knife’s blade pointed down over him.

An officer drew his firearm as he approached the subjects, asking MacFhionghain to drop the knife so he could help him. Another officer advanced with a less-lethal Extended Range Impact Weapon (ERIW), also referred to as a bean bag gun.

“He got me right there and I can’t breathe,” Mendoza told the officers. He sporadically reiterated that he couldn’t breathe throughout the interaction.

“This man repeatedly attacking me,” said MacFhionghain to the officers.

The third officer to arrive at the scene was a Bayview Police Station sergeant, who requested more officers from Central Station and the SFPD Hostage/Crisis Negotiation Team, as well as additional ambulances to standby. Mariposa Street between Pennsylvania and Owens streets was blocked off; California Highway Patrol later closed the I-280 Mariposa exit at SFPD’s request.

The initial officer closest to MacFhionghain told him that he believed that he’d been attacked, but to sort things out he needed him to drop the knife. MacFhionghain didn’t comply. The officer continued to communicate with him, repeatedly asking him to drop the knife, as more police arrived with less-lethal force options, including bean bag guns, Penn Arms 40-millimeter (mm) foam baton projectile weapons, and pepper spray.

An officer who had a prior interaction with Mendoza remembered that Spanish was his primary language. A bilingual officer proceeded to communicate with Mendoza in Spanish while other officers continued in English.

Officers on the scene organized arrest teams, less lethal force options, and lethal cover, as well as shields and pepper spray. They believed both MacFhionghain and Mendoza had knives and continued asking for them to be dropped. The sergeant instructed the officers, “If (MacFhionghain) stabs him, hit (MacFhionghain) with the ERIW.” 

Officers fired a 40-mm baton projectile at MacFhionghain’s hand holding the knife while repeatedly commanding him to drop it. He refused and continued holding the knife over Mendoza, as one officer warned him to “…drop the knife or you’ll keep getting hit.” Two more baton projectiles were fired at MacFhionghain. An officer attempted to pepper spray MacFhionghain, while constables continued to order him to drop the knife. 

Body-worn camera footage shows that as more constables arrived, attempts to communicate with the subjects shifted to shouting. Soon, there were more than a dozen officers around Mendoza and MacFhionghain with weapons drawn, shouting orders at the subject and each other. One officer can be heard over camera footage saying, “There are too many guns.”

Nearly ten minutes into the struggle, MacFhionghain suddenly rose over Mendoza and violently brought the knife point downwards toward his chest. Officers fired less-lethal rounds from the bean bag gun and baton rifle at MacFhionghain while shouting for him to “drop the knife,” and “drop it.”

Seconds later, MacFhionghain repeated the action, bringing the knife up then down in a stabbing motion. Four officers, Aidan O’Driscoll and Joshua Dequis of Bayview Station and Daniel Rosaia and Trent Collins of Southern Station, fired more than a dozen lethal rounds at MacFhionghain. Three discharged their department-issued handguns; one discharged a department-issued patrol rifle.

The sergeant can be heard over his camera crying out as lethal rounds were discharged before taking a few steps back, shouting what sounds like “Stop!” multiple times to the officers.

Mendoza was pulled away from MacFhionghain and immediately given medical aid by SFPD and San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) officers. He was transported by SFFD to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital but succumbed to his wounds. MacFhionghain was placed in handcuffs before receiving CPR from SFFD medical personnel but was later pronounced deceased at the scene.

MacFhionghain’s six-inch knife was recovered at the scene, along with a similar blade. 

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner released a report on May 24th, stating that the cause of death for Mendoza was a “single gunshot wound,” and the reason for MacFhionghain’s demise was “multiple gunshot wounds.” Both deaths were ruled homicides. 

The California Department of Justice is required to investigate all officer-involved shootings that result in civilian deaths. The case is being examined. 

Mendoza “…was an unhoused father who lived a life of desperation,” stated Deputy Public Defender Alexandra Pray in a press release from the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, who had previously represented him. “In all of my interactions with him, he was very sweet and gentle, even though his struggle to survive often entangled him in the criminal legal system for mostly petty and non-violent offenses.”

A retired SFPD officer, who wanted to remain anonymous, spoke with the View about the shooting. 

“I think some tactics could have been done differently,” said the retired officer. “In hindsight, two officers could have been designated to use lethal force if necessary, instead of four or five cops shooting all at once, thereby limiting collateral damage…I would have had the guy with the rifle step back. That’s usually used for long distances or suspects using body armor. If lethal force was going to be used, it should have been officers with their handguns, especially at that distance.”

When asked about alternative tactics, including equipping officers in full body armor to enable them to approach the subject to take away the knife, the retired officer stated, “The type of training officers get at the academy isn’t enough to qualify them to go hands-on with a guy with a knife. This is a situation where the officer should have had a taser…Because of the politics in the City, (SFPD) is one of the very few agencies that are not allowed to use them. Two officers could have deployed tasers on the primary aggressor, and most likely, it would have incapacitated him…I think this is a call for the public to insist that cops get outfitted with tasers. This probably would have saved two lives.” 

Officials gather at Owens and Mariposa streets. Photo: Odin Thien-An Marin