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Homeless in San Francisco sheltering in place during the COVID-19 pandemic
Homeless in San Francisco sheltering in place during the COVID-19 pandemic
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Do Homeless Lives Matter? Nine Fatal Minutes, Two Years Later

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“Internet trolls said out loud what many people may be ashamed to even think: Just two more dead bums.”

That was just one of the Internet comments on extraordinary May 19 footage from numerous San Francisco police bodycams. The footage is now widely available online.

Only six days before the second anniversary of George Floyd’s nine-minute asphyxiation death on May 25, 2020, the video evidence released by the police shows officers standing around for nine minutes as two homeless men, apparently under the influence of something, wrestled in slow motion.

Police officers first arrived at the scene at 8:01 p.m. They saw the two men, later identified as Rafael Mendoza, 49, and Michael Macfhionghain. 57, on the ground next to a brown tarp and a low concrete and steel wall, underneath an I-280 freeway overpass. Macfhionghain held a knife in his right hand, with the blade pointed downward over Mendoza, who lay on his back and used his right hand to hold onto Macfhionghain’s right wrist.

Mendoza told the officers, “I can’t breathe.” Macfhionghain told the officers Mendoza attacked him. A police sergeant arrived and called for other police, including a Hostage/Crisis Negotiating Team. Soon about 16 were at the scene, some with guns that shoot beanbags and foam bullets.

“Drop the knife,” several repeatedly yelled. In words familiar to viewers of detective shows, a negotiator tried reasoning with the man on top, Macfhionghain: “You told me that he attacked you. I believe you. …. I don’t want to shoot you…. This can all be solved…. We can’t solve this until you drop the knife…. I see that you want us to help you. The only way we can help you is if you drop the knife.”

Police shot two foam bullets and a beanbag at Macfhionghain’s back, then used pepper spray, but he didn’t drop the knife. Some of the officers were only three yards away, but no one kicked the man on top or banged him on the head with the stock of a rifle. Instead, three of the police with handguns and a fourth with a rifle shot real bullets. When the brief fusillade ended, a dozen casings were on the ground and both human beings on the ground were fatally hit.

San Francisco Mission Local reporter Joe Eskenazi reviewed the videos with current and former police officers. They “felt that their colleagues’ rote application of the de-escalation policy stymied any creative impulse to solve this problem and ultimately save the victim, as did a fear of being caught on camera ‘being a cowboy,’ trying something unconventional, and failing.” One experienced officer said, “They were willing to follow the policy strictly, even if it has a worse outcome.”

Today’s police are trained not to take chances, said one retired SFPD who was on the force for 30 years: “Officers are now primarily reactive; there is very little of the self-initiated activity that was once common, appropriate and encouraged. They have become risk-averse, disinclined to go hands-on with suspects. This is a factor in the bigger picture of what is going on in American policing.”

But that’s the bigger picture. The smaller picture is, as Eskenazi concluded, that the killings would be a bigger deal “if the men shot dead by the SFPD were not homeless.”  A San Franciso Chronicle headline read, “Experts troubled by police tactics in fatal shooting.” One of the experts, Stanford Criminal Justice Center co-director Robert Weisberg, said, “It feels like a philosophy problem…. What’s the mathematical chance that you’ll kill the non-aggressor?… Oh, gosh. So, so tricky.”

Maybe the experts are right, but the San Francisco setting for this tragedy got me thinking of the classic film Dirty Harry. Clint Eastwood played a San Francisco detective who took on the hardest challenges and threw away the rule book. He would have jumped on Macfhionghain’s back — but that was a movie 51 years ago. Judging by comments at a public meeting to discuss the shooting, maybe we need Simon and Garfunkel to record a revised song: Where have you gone, Harry Callahan? A city turns its lonely eyes to you.

Mission Local reporter William Jenkins quoted one commenter at the meeting, Susan Bachman, saying that in some situations officers have to make split-second decisions, but in this case the action on the ground (as in the George Floyd killing) unfolded slowly: ‘In this one you had time, you had distance, you had an officer attempting to make rapport with at least one of the gentlemen.”

Could it be that the two homeless men weren’t seen as gentlemen?