The lead officer in the San Francisco police shooting of Mario Woods, said he tried to heed the department’s guidance on avoiding “Lawful but Awful” shootings, but told investigators he had no choice but to open fire when the knife-wielding man came at him. That revelation about the deadly 2015 shooting was included in investigation documents just released today.
The release of the Woods case findings comes the same week that we learned the city has tentatively agreed to pay the Woods family $400,000 to settle claims over the Dec. 2, 2015 shooting. It also comes on the same day that the San Francisco police defender’s office accused the SFPD of dragging its feet regarding releasing information under a new state law.
That law requires all police departments to release information on police misconduct or use of force cases.
The department has only released files in five cases, to date.
The summary for the Woods case revealed all five officers who fired that day were asked to account for their actions in light of the department’s April 2015 bulletin on how to avoid “Lawful but Awful” shootings.
The bulletin — which was quickly retracted after the Woods shooting — offered instructions on de-escalating confrontations and maintaining a safe buffer between officers and armed suspects.
But the officers who confronted Woods said they knew he was suspected of stabbing a man earlier that day. He had also refused orders to drop a knife despite being hit with pepper spray, foam bullets and bean bag rounds during the confrontation.
Charles August — the lead officer dealing with Woods that day — recalled that he sought to de-escalate the situation.
"Hey, we can work through this. Whatever you got going on, we
don't have to do things this way,” August recalled telling Woods, according to the report.
“He felt that his attempts to create time and distance did not work,” the investigative report concluded, adding Woods continued toward August — and a crowd at a bus stop behind the officer — with the knife.
August said he couldn’t back up further “because Woods was closing the distance quickly, and he was uncertain how close the civilians were behind him.”
Another officer in the confrontation, Winston Seto, said he didn’t feel the “Lawful but Awful” bulletin’s guidance applied in the situation.
"We can always try — try to create time and distance, which is what we did,” Seto said, adding, “there is only a finite amount of space that we can give him and he didn't give us the opportunity to establish that rapport” during the confrontation.
While the “Lawful but Awful” bulletin was rescinded within days of the shooting, some of its language related to distance and de-escalation was incorporated into the department’s general use of force policy that came out later that same month.