A South of Market shooting of a man in a wheelchair garnered significant media attention, in part because the incident was captured on video. Now the man who was shot, and who faces charges himself, is suing SFPD, placing the DA’s office in the seemingly conflicting position of simultaneously prosecuting a crime and investigating the officers’ behavior during the suspect’s arrest.
On the morning of January 4th, SFPD officers responded to a vandalism call on the 1300 block of Howard Street in SoMa. There, they discovered 55-year old, wheelchair-seated, supremely agitated Randal Dunklin allegedly slashing car tires and vandalizing parking meters with a large buck knife. The officers say they tried to subdue Dunklin with pepper spray to no avail, alleging that he became more aggressive and stabbed one of them in the shoulder. The officers responded by shooting the suspect with a bean bag gun. Dunklin apparently then attempted to drop his knife, but the officers, construing his movement as threatening, shot him three times–this time with actual bullets. Both Dunklin and the stabbed officer were taken to the hospital, however neither of their injuries were deemed life-threatening.
The incident garnered wide-spread media attention, largely because it was captured on video by a bystander’s cell phone camera.
While Dunklin is currently facing assault charges, he is concurrently suing the department for their conduct during the arrest.
The incident was apparently sparked when Dunklin, who was born with polio, is homeless and suffers from mental illness, went into the Department of Public Health Behavioral Services Building seeking help. When he was told by staff to come back the next day, and then not to smoke inside the building, he became agitated and began throwing blocks of concrete at the building and its employees.
Police initially claimed Dunklin was standing up at the time he was shot, however the video evidence clearly shows otherwise. The department has since admitted that the officers were mistaken in their initial reports.
Dunklin has pleaded not guilty to two counts of assault with a deadly weapon and counts of resisting arrest and vandalism.
SFPD has come under a lot of criticism for their handling of the arrest. “The fact that he had an obvious physical disability did not appear to factor into how the police officers planned or excited their response,” said Disability Rights Advocates’ Mary Lee Smith.
This shooting came only weeks after a Bayview resident, who also had a history of mental illness, was shot and killed after she approached a SFPD officer wielding “a knife-like object.”
In response to these incidents, SFPD has said they are looking into changing the way it deals with the mentally ill. Specifically, it is creating an elite specialized team to deal with crisis situations involving the mentally disabled.
District Attorney George Gascon’s office is charged with prosecuting Dunklin while investigating the police’s handling of the incident. As with seemingly everything Gascon does, there have been charges of conflict of interest from his former role as SFPD chief. While in some other instances Gascon has chosen to recuse himself, in this case he has seen fit to retain his personal involvement in the investigation.
Dunklin’s case against the SFPD will likely hinge on the question of whether the officers’ use of force was justified. “Police officers can only use deadly force if there’s an imminent threat to their lives or safety,” says Dunklin’s lawyer John Scott, “and I didn’t seen an imminent threat here
Whereas in so many other cases of this nature, with an individual suing a police department for inappropriate use of force, it comes down to a “he said/she said” situation. Here at least, they can go to the tape.