A Preventable Tragedy

Coalition on Homelessness Statement on Officer-involved Double Fatality on May 19, 2022

Rising rents and a lack of stable, affordable housing have pushed many people into homelessness in San Francisco, like they have in cities up and down the West Coast. Living without stable housing is difficult and traumatizing, and it has long-term health consequences for those forced to endure it. With no door to lock and no safe place to rest, unhoused people live without the fundamental stability and safety a home provides. Unhoused people are disproportionately African American in San Francisco and across the country. 

Unhoused people are often vilified, subject to discrimination and derogatory language. Their lives are consistently undervalued by the policy and practices of government institutions, including police departments. 

On May 19, two men named Michael MacFhionghain and Rafael Mendoza were engaged in a fight involving knives. Police shot both men dead. We are deeply saddened by this loss of life, and our sympathies go out to their families and friends.

As part of our work, the Coalition on Homelessness is engaged in protecting the human rights of those forced to sleep rough on our sidewalks and parks. This work has included extensive campaigns to change the San Francisco Police Department’s use of force policies, challenging SFPD practices with regards to the unhoused community, and helping to establish the Crisis Intervention Teams that deploy specially trained officers in response to mental health crisis calls. 

In review of the nine minutes of police body camera footage of the incident, it appears as if SFPD General Order 5.01 was not followed. Key and relevant sections of the policy include: 

SAFEGUARDING HUMAN LIFE AND DIGNITY. The authority to use force is a serious responsibility given to peace officers by the people who expect them to exercise that authority judiciously and with respect for human rights, dignity and life. 

ESTABLISH COMMUNICATION. Communication with non-compliant subjects is often most effective when officers establish rapport, use the proper voice intonation, ask questions and provide advice to defuse conflict and achieve voluntary compliance before resorting to force options. 

DE-ESCALATION. Officers shall, when feasible, employ de-escalation techniques to decrease the likelihood of the need to use force during an incident and to increase the likelihood of voluntary compliance. Officers shall when feasible, attempt to understand and consider the possible reasons why a subject may be noncompliant or resisting arrest. A subject may not be capable of understanding the situation because of a medical condition; mental, physical, or hearing impairment; language barrier; drug interaction; or emotional crisis, and have no criminal intent. These situations DGO 5.01 Rev. 12/21/16 2 may not make the subject any less dangerous, but understanding a subject’s situation may enable officers to calm the subject and allow officers to use de-escalation techniques while maintaining public and officer safety. Officers who act to de-escalate an incident, which can delay taking a subject into custody, while keeping the public and officers safe, will not be found to have neglected their duty. They will be found to have fulfilled it.

PROPORTIONALITY. When determining the appropriate level of force, officers shall, when feasible, balance the severity of the offense committed and the level of resistance based on the totality of the circumstances known to or perceived by the officer at the time. It is particularly important that officers apply proportionality and critical decision making when encountering a subject who is armed with a weapon other than a firearm.

We have the following observations to make:

  • De-escalation techniques cannot work if there is no language capacity. In this situation and several others, including those of Thai-speaking chocolate factory worker Pralith Pralourng and unhoused Mayan resident Luis Gongora Pat, officers unsuccessfully engaged with individuals in behavioral health crises by shouting commands in a language the individuals did not speak. Both of these incidents resulted in the deaths of those experiencing crisis. 
  • The de-escalation techniques utilized by officers could be radically improved. The officer involved in de-escalation was not using proper voice intonation and instead was shouting, repeatedly trying an assertive technique largely based on issuing orders. There did not appear to be a team looking into who these individuals were or seeing if there was anyone who knew them and could help to establish rapport. Instead, you could hear an officer saying he recently arrested one of the men but could not remember his name. There was no variety in technique—for example changing the officer involved, changing the tenor of voice, asking questions or offering items of assistance, providing helpful choices or refraining from threats. In sum, there were insufficient attempts to reduce the level of intensity. 
  • One officer tried to build rapport, but he was surrounded by 17 other officers and a lot of talking and noise. The communication from officers was confusing, with multiple officers yelling. This has the opposite of the desired effect and increases the level of intensity.  
  • The use of a firearm put the victim at risk because of the close proximity of the two individuals. Multiple officers shooting at once also increased the likelihood of a fatality. 

Is there another way?

The Compassionate Alternative Response Team, funded last year by Mayor London Breed, provides an alternative response—but the team would not have been sent on this call, because of the presence of knives. However, there is a possibility that CART could have prevented this by engaging in de-escalation earlier in the day, before the situation reached crisis. Unhoused individuals who are worried about a conflict will be able to call CART for assistance, once it is implemented. CART members would be highly trained in mediation techniques.

The reliance on weapons in these situations should be changed. Shields or other objects could have been used to create a barrier between the two men, for example.  

While there is no predicting definitively, there are a variety of techniques that officers could have used to improve the de-escalation outcome, such as asking questions, changing the tenor of their voice, and seeking additional information to assist with negotiations. There also did not need to be such a large show of force, which can escalate situations. Officers not actively negotiating should have been out of line of vision.

The deaths of two valuable members of our community is a tragedy that could have been avoided with timely interventions at so many different points in this process. From the city’s chronic lack of affordable housing down to the very moment when shots were fired, preventable failures were allowed. We mourn these terrible losses and demand that the city of San Francisco do better.