Mayor Lee meets with Bayview community leaders about officer-involved shooting

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A photo from a protest outside the Oakdale / Palou station on the T-Third line.
Photo by "Dang," from Indybay.org

Mayor Ed Lee and officials from the San Francisco Police Department met with Bayview community leaders in City Hall July 19 to discuss the police investigation surrounding a July 16 officer-involved shooting that has prompted intense community anger and protests. While city officials indicated that the meeting was called to provide information and updates for the community, frustrated community members emerging from the City Hall conference room dismissed it as “more of a lecture,” saying city officials weren’t open to hearing broader community concerns that have intensified in the wake of this tragic event.

Reporters were not allowed in the room while the meeting was held because “it’s more of a community meeting,” according to mayoral communications staff member Francis Tsang. Attendees included Bayview community leaders Chris Jackson, Geoffrea Morris, Mike Brown, Charlie Walker, Ed Donaldson, and the Rev. Amos Brown. District 10 Sup. Malia Cohen also issued invitations to the meeting, which was scheduled at the same time as the full Board of Supervisors meeting, and sent a representative.

The shooting victim was Kenneth Harding Jr., 19, from Washington. Police say he fired one round at officers before police fired nine rounds, killing him. However, some witnesses initially reported that they did not see Harding fire a gun, and a firearm wasn’t immediately recovered from the scene. Police initially tried to detain Harding on the station platform of the Oakdale / Palou stop on the T-Third line on suspected fare evasion. After Harding was killed, it came to light that he had a criminal history and had been named as a person of interest in the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old pregnant woman from Washington. The incident, which occurred in broad daylight and was captured on film and witnessed by people who were out on the street, proved to be a traumatizing event for a low-income, predominantly African American community where tensions already run high between police and residents.

Lee indicated to the Guardian that the July 19 meeting had been called primarily to clear up misinformation. “There have been a lot of stories spreading about what did and didn’t occur, and we felt it was necessary to get the community updated as quickly as possible,” Lee said. “Any time there is a death in any community we’re very concerned … this one in particular has been represented in many different ways, and a lot of it has been very inflammatory in terms of what people have said occurred. We’ve heard points like there was no gun, when in fact now we’ve found a gun through police investigation. That there was no shot made at officers when … the officers have at least some evidence through the ShotSpotter program that there was an initial shot made by the suspect.”

Lee added that MUNI staff had reported people relaying “all kinds of stories” while riding the buses. “These are very hard, hard feelings,” he said. “So I felt it necessary that we confront this head on with community leaders. We met with some yesterday, we’re meeting with some today, [Police Chief Greg Suhr] is hosting a town-hall meeting in the Bayview tomorrow to yet again find every opportunity to fully explain what they have uncovered as the evidence, and to make sure people base their views on the facts.” A larger community meeting is scheduled for July 20 at 6 p.m. at the Bayview Opera House.

Meanwhile, Bayview community leaders Chris Jackson and Geoffrea Morris were not pleased when they emerged from the conference room. “The mayor left without hearing one public comment,” Morris said. “It was just a lecture. It wasn’t addressing the police, and how they deal with fare evasion, and harass people along the T train. It was not that. It was just, the mayor said his little thing, did not say goodbye, and ran out.”

Morris went on, “We don’t have grief counselors out there. We don’t have the police saying that they’ll stay off the T-Train platform until the investigation is done. We thought this meeting was going to be for them to go, ‘where do we go from here?’ And the thing that people are missing … whatever demon that boy had, that was a human life.” Concerns are still swirling about how long it took for an ambulance to arrive after the shooting, Morris said, and about how police arrived at the scene with high-powered weapons which they kept drawn even as Harding writhed in a pool of blood on the sidewalk.

Morris and Jackson said that during the meeting, officials showed a Channel 7 TV news broadcast clip and played an audio of gunshots being fired to demonstrate that the suspect had fired an initial shot before police opened fire. “We all have Internet, smart phones, and all the footage as well,” Morris said. “I was there on the site.”

Shortly after the meeting, the San Francisco Police Department issued a statement to announce that gunshot residue had been detected on Harding’s right hand during an investigation. “The presence of gunshot residue on Harding’s right hand supports statements from witnesses that Harding held the gun in his right hand as he fired at the police officers,” the press release stated. It went on to note that the presence of gunshot residue on an individual's hand could indicate that the individual fired a gun, or was in close proximity to a gun when it was fired, or touched something that was coated with gunshot residue.

Morris and Jackson also voiced concerns that went beyond the details of this particular case. “The response really needs to be a policy shift,” Jackson said. “We need a better approach in terms of violence prevention. We cannot address this with more cops on the T line.”

Jackson, who ran for District 10 supervisor in 2010, also questioned why police officers had been tasked with fare evasion enforcement on the T-Third line in the first place. MUNI also employs fare inspectors, he pointed out, and the city has a specialized program, called the ambassadors program, which was created last year in the wake of violence along the T-Third line directed at members of the Asian community. “Where was the public conversation about putting cops on MUNI trains?” Jackson wanted to know. “Who came up with that idea?”

Asked about this, Lee told the Guardian that he had specifically requested a higher police presence in areas where higher levels of crime were anticipated – and the July 16 shooting occurred in just such an area.

“I actually asked the chief to pay more attention to areas that had a history of gun violence and shootings and other kinds of violence … and it just so happens that this particular area, Third and Palou, is a place where there’s a lot of violence,” Lee said. “So we had more uniformed officers on that specifically at not only my request, but with the understanding of the police chief, too. He’s trying to do his best to keep everybody safe. And that in the summer, with all of the evidence that we have about where the shootings are and where they’re occurring, we naturally focus on areas where we think there’s going to be more violence to have more presence. So circumstances occurred where an individual was stopped because of a fare evasion, and I believe police were there to begin to detain him, and ask him to provide some evidence of who he is and why he did what he did, and that turned out to be a chase. A chase is one thing, but a chase with an opening of a firearm is a completely different thing.”

Meanwhile, Bayview community residents who ride the T-Third line experienced delays in recent days because MUNI operations staff decided to stop running light rail trains into the Bayview, instead dropping people off partway through the route and then directing them to wait for shuttle buses.

On July 18, a little before dark, a T-Third driver stopped at the Marin Street stop and announced that all passengers would have to wait for a shuttle bus. When passengers demanded to know why, she responded, “They’re acting up on Third Street, and our bosses don’t want us in the middle of it.”

According to SFMTA spokesperson Kristen Holland, operations staff began receiving reports around 6:30 or 7 p.m. July 18 that “there were upwards of 50 people walking on the right-of-way for the trains. As a safety precaution, our operations folks deployed buses for that portion of the line. We were told that they started at the southern terminus, and were walking north.”

This Guardian reporter hopped onto a shuttle bus with a notebook in hand after hearing that people were “acting up,” but by the time the bus made its way into the heart of the Bayview, the streets were calm. A MUNI employee who asked not to be named said he’d heard that someone had kicked in a window on one of the T-Third cars, and that was why the trains weren’t going through.

Meanwhile, the unexpected transfer left passengers weary, since for many waiting for the shuttle marked a second or third transfer on public transportation to get home. “People’s kind of frustrated. You go a few blocks, and they say it’s the end of the line. You go a couple blocks and they tell you the same thing,” said Darwin Green.

Another passenger, a youth who was with a friend and seemed concerned about the unfamiliar route the shuttle bus was taking, said, “I think it’s bullshit that they’re issuing citations. And there’s no need to shoot somebody because they didn’t have change for the bus fare.”
 
Another passenger was also disgruntled about the delays. Asked what he thought about everything that had been going on in recent days, he said, “It seems like they spend an awful lot of money in wages chasing down $2 fares.”