Why Cops Are Finally Getting Indicted in San Francisco

Before Chesa Boudin took office, San Francisco had never charged a police officer in the severe injury or death of a civilian. 
December 9, 2020, 4:14pm
A demonstrator yells while marching with hundreds of protesters against the recent fatal shootings by police of black men in San Francisco on Friday, July 8, 2016. The peaceful group marched about two miles to San Francisco City Hall.

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Before Chesa Boudin took office as San Francisco’s new district attorney, the city had never charged a police officer in the severe injury or death of a civilian. 

Now, his office has indicted a second officer, just two weeks after the first.

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“If you commit a violent crime in San Francisco, we will hold you accountable,” Boudin told VICE News Tuesday. “No one is above the law, not even police. San Franciscans demand equal enforcement of the law, and that is exactly what we are delivering.”

Boudin announced on Twitter Monday that a grand jury had indicted San Francisco Police Department Officer Christopher Flores. In 2019, Flores shot 25-year-old burglary suspect Jamaica Hampton multiple times, once after Hampton—who’d attacked him several times with a liquor bottle— had already been hit and tried to get to his knees. Body-cam footage of the encounter shows Flores’ partner repeatedly telling him to stop shooting.

Hampton survived but suffered permanent nerve damage in his left arm and had to have his leg amputated as a result of the shooting. 

Boudin, the son of two incarcerated members of the radical-left Weather Underground organization, ran for office in 2019 on a progressive platform of eliminating cash bail, overturning wrongful convictions, defying ICE, and cracking down on law enforcement misconduct. Since taking office, he’s outlawed charging people for drugs found as a result of stop-and-frisk as well as extending prison sentences based on most prior offenses, except in the most extreme cases.

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And on November 23, less than a year after becoming DA, Boudin charged SFPD Officer Chris Samayoa in the 2017 fatal shooting of 42-year-old Keita O’Neil, an unarmed Black man suspected of a carjacking. 

“No one is above the law, not even police. San Franciscans demand equal enforcement of the law and that is exactly what we are delivering.”

The charges marked the first time a cop in the city was prosecuted for homicide.

“The shift is pretty extraordinary,” said Jacinta Gau, an associate professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Central Florida, “the shift away from the traditional white male-dominated conservative-leaning law enforcement community that bands together and influences these positions.”

Police officers are rarely prosecuted in the U.S. Between 2005 and 2020, 121 law enforcement officers were arrested for killing someone while on duty, Professor Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University, told the New York Times. He said that only 44 of these officers were convicted, many of a less severe charge.

Charging an officer for using excessive force usually involves disproving the officer reasonably feared for his life, a justification that many district attorneys in the U.S. rarely question.

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But not Boudin.

In fact, one of his first actions in office was to drop charges against Hampton, whose attorney said he was suffering from a mental health episode at the time of the shooting. The decision drew ire from San Francisco Police Association President Tony Montoya, who said Boudin’s move “made it very clear that it’s open season on police officers.”

In the case leading to the first indictment, for the fatal shooting of Keita O’Neil, rookie Officer Samayoa had stopped O’Neil’s vehicle at a dead end, then fired his weapon at O’Neil as he fled. Body-cam footage of the encounter shows Samayoa fired through the passenger-side window as O’Neil ran past the police cruiser.

Samayoa was charged with voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter, assault with a semi-automatic firearm, assault by a police officer, and discharge of a firearm with gross negligence.

“I think the murder of George Floyd was instrumental in broadening the base of support for prosecuting police officers who use force inappropriately,” Gau said. “It was such a shocking and seemingly unprovoked attack by a police officer on an unarmed Black man. It was not possible for white Americans to continue to deny that this happens.” 

“That’s why we’re seeing this significant change in white American voters’ attitudes in their willingness to elect a DA who runs on a platform of improving police accountability,” she added.

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In the last several years, more progressive candidates have vied for prosecutorial positions in the U.S. In 2017, Philadelphia elected progressive Democrat Larry Krasner for city district attorney. Last year, a wave of progressive Democratic DAs won their races, including Boudin and Monique Worrell, in Orlando. That same year in Queens, New York, DA candidate Tiffany Cubán, who earned the endorsements of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, lost her race by just 60 votes. 

Last month, Boudin’s predecessor, George Gascón, won the DA’s seat in Los Angeles. This week, he announced he planned to end cash bail, stop trying children as adults, and outlaw the death penalty.

But some think Boudin isn’t going far enough. Michael James, executive director of the pro-police reform organization known as the East Bay Resistance, told VICE News that the DA still has work to do and cited the names of countless others who lost their lives in police encounters.

"DA Boudin's decision to prosecute a San Francisco police officer is only a start in the right direction toward justice for the victims and families who lost their loved one by the hands of the police,” he said. “Boudin promised to the community during his running campaign that he would reopen cases that former DA Gascon either closed or did not choose to prosecute, and this is a small step towards what he promised the community. "

Defund SFPD Now, another local organization pushing for reforms and the demilitarization of local policing, agreed.

"Individual accountability is important, but it is not systemic accountability,” a spokesperson told VICE News. “The only way to end police violence is by transforming public safety and eliminating interactions between police and our communities.”