Police Captain Wants More Ways to Handle Violence

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According to San Francisco Police Department Captain Raj Vaswani , who heads Bayview Station, which is responsible for peace on Potrero Hill, among other Southside neighborhoods, in light of the Mario Woods shooting SFPD needs more ways to handle similar violent situations.

Woods was shot by police in an incident that unfolded on December 2. In it SFPD officers encountered Woods holding a knife in Bayview.  He matched the description of a stabbing suspect. The officers told Woods to drop the knife, and tried to subdue him with pepper spray and rounds from a Bean Bag gun. All had no effect. When an officer tried to keep Woods from fleeing, Woods allegedly came toward him with the knife, prompting police to shoot him. 

The captain’s comments were in response to questions posed by a Bayview Hunters-Point resident at a monthly community meeting held in January at 201 Williams Avenue.  “You have a culture of killing people,” the resident said, while acknowledging San Francisco needs a police department.  According to the resident the Woods shooting was an example of “excessive force.”

“I get it,” Vaswani told the resident and more than a half-dozen other meeting attendees.  He said SFPD has good officers who have to take violent, armed, individuals into custody daily.  As a result, said Vaswani, it’s important for constables to have as many options as possible, and to pick the best approach to protect themselves and the public. He said any option less lethal than a gun is a step in the right direction.

“There’s definitely a problem,” Eddie Edais said, referring to the Woods shooting.  Edais said he knows Woods’ mother, who has patronized one or more of the three Bayview businesses he owns:  JJ Fish & Chicken, Big Save Market, and Topline Apparel.  He said police officers are just as important as everyone else, but that they’re looking for ways to justify shootings, calling the death of Woods “tragic.”

Mission District resident Nichole Santiago said she understands the police’s side of the story as well as residents’ outrage.  She asked the captain for more information about the shooting.  Vaswani said because the case is being litigated he couldn’t say any more than what’s been reported to the media. The officers involved in the shooting have been assigned to non-patrol duties while SFPD, District Attorney’s Office and Office of Citizen Complaints conduct investigations.

Allegations of racial bias in the way police deal with suspects have increased over the past several years, with greater media attention on recent shootings of unarmed Black men.  A racial profiling assessment published by the San Francisco Police Commission indicates that in 2014, 44 percent of people arrested in San Francisco were African-American, 32 percent were non-Hispanic Whites, 17 percent were Hispanic, seven percent were Asian-American, and one percent originated in Alaska, the Americas, the Aleutian Islands or the Pacific Islands.  The City’s estimated 2014 population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, was comprised of 6 percent African-Americans, 41 percent non-Hispanic Whites, 35 percent Asian-Americans, 15 percent Hispanics and one percent originated in Alaska, the Americas or the Pacific islands, including Hawaii. 

Captains like Vaswani are being told to work with community leaders to identify potential conflicts and assign senior officers who understand the neighborhoods to resolve them, police said.  “We need to have a strong working relationship with the communities we serve,” Chief Greg Suhr said in a statement. “Trust is the ‘coin of the realm’ in everything we do as police officers.”

In 2008, nationwide, police made contact with about 40 million individuals, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.  Police used or threatened force against 560,000 of these individuals, including pointing a gun at 140,000 people, with 106,400 reported being injured in the encounter.