San Francisco’s police union intensified its attack on a proposal to restrict officers from shooting at moving vehicles — a top priority for reform advocates — by releasing an advertisement dramatizing what could happen if a raging motorist gunned his pickup into a crowd of street activists.
“Many will die, or be injured,” the video’s narrator warns, over an image of an officer unable to draw his gun because of the department’s new use-of-force policy.
But the ad, set to air on local TV stations starting Friday, drew criticism over the union’s stance as well as how it sought to make its case. The video pointed not only to the truck attack that killed 86 people celebrating Bastille Day in France in July, but also a 2003 incident in San Francisco in which two officers shot and killed a driver in a chaotic encounter.
The ad falsely suggests the San Francisco driver had steered into a crowd and was “determined to run people down.” There was no crowd, and the 18-year-old appeared to be focused on trying to escape from police when he was killed, said his father, who was outraged when he learned of the ad Thursday.
Police Commission President Suzy Loftus, whose face appears at the end of the ad as the union asks for the public to contact her with complaints about the proposed policy, said the political message was misleading and represented “Trump-like fear-mongering.”
“The facts matter, now more than ever,” Loftus said. “Twenty-five percent of officer-involved shootings in San Francisco since 2000 involved officers shooting at cars. These were not terror attacks, as we see in the tragic case highlighted in the video.”
The dispute comes amid an ongoing investigation into a sergeant’s fatal shooting of an unarmed car-theft suspect in the Bayview neighborhood in May, which prompted the resignation of Chief Greg Suhr.
It is likely to heighten tensions between the Police Officers Association, which says it must protect officers’ safety, and those pushing for changes in the wake of several controversial police shootings in San Francisco. Critics say the union — which in the past year has lashed out aggressively against its opponents — is standing in the way of needed reforms.
The proposed update of the use-of-force policy was developed after the fatal shooting of Mario Woods in the Bayview on Dec. 2, 2015 — one year ago Friday — and was an effort to emphasize de-escalation.
The Police Commission passed it June 22, but under city and state law such policies must be approved by the union. Though the union agreed with most of the new policy, there was an impasse on shooting at vehicles, and union officials filed a grievance that could trigger arbitration.
The city’s previous use-of-force policy warned that shooting at a moving vehicle was “inherently dangerous,” but allowed for officers to do so under certain circumstances.
The new policy bars officers from firing at a moving vehicle unless the driver “poses an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury to the public or an officer by means other than the vehicle.” Under this language, a person who poses a threat with a gun while driving can be shot.
The commercial begins with an angry pickup truck driver barreling toward pedestrians.
“It’s a sunny autumn day and a group of activists are quietly marching on a city street,” the narrator says. “Suddenly, a 4-ton truck begins plowing into the crowd. Police rush to halt the driver but are prohibited by city policy from drawing their weapons.”
With wounded victims sprawled along the street, the dramatization transitions to Officer Reggie Scott, one of two city officers who shot Michael Moll on Feb. 19, 2003.
“In Nice, France, 86 people died before police shot and killed the terrorist driver,” Scott says in the video. “Thirteen years ago, I was forced to use my weapon to stop a driver determined to run people down in the Taraval district. Lives were saved.”
Viewers then see a mock-up article from “San Francisco Newsline” with a caption stating Moll drove “into a crowd on the sidewalk” and struck an officer before “two other SFPD policemen were able to terminate the threat of a driver turning his vehicle into an instrument of deadly destruction.”
But reports from the time say nothing about Moll steering into a crowd or trying to kill pedestrians. Police said then that Moll had been driving a stolen Honda Civic erratically, running stop signs and at one point jumping a sidewalk, before crashing into a stopped car. When two undercover officers approached with guns drawn, Moll allegedly shifted into reverse, striking an officer standing behind his open door.
Moll, who according to an autopsy report had methamphetamine in his system, was fumbling to drive forward when the officers opened fire, police said. The officer who was struck reportedly suffered bruises and was released from a hospital the same day.
“He did try to get away, but he only bumped other cars,” said his father, Russell Moll. “He wasn’t using the car as a weapon, and I know well that he was not driving onto a sidewalk into a crowd of people. Those are facts, in the police incident reports.”
Russell Moll said he was angry that the union would use his son’s death politically, painting him as a terrorist when he was just a troubled kid. “He had some problems and we were trying to work with him to get him through that stuff,” he said, “but he was no maniac killer by no stretch of the imagination. … I can’t believe this.”
Police union President Martin Halloran said the Moll case, the Bastille Day massacre and last week’s car-ramming attack at Ohio State University had a common theme: “In all cases, the vehicle was the primary weapon used in an attempt to kill people.
“In order to stop a suspect who is attempting to kill people with a vehicle, police officers need to be able to use their weapons,” Halloran said. “The policy has to be written in a way that allows officers to use their weapons under exceptional circumstances to stop a slaughter.”
A growing number of police agencies have restricted shooting at moving vehicles, a practice that the U.S. Department of Justice’s community-policing division and President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing say should be restricted.
The practice has been a focus of police watchdogs, who contend that in many situations officers shoot drivers whose goal is to flee — not to hurt or kill anyone. Moreover, proponents of restrictive policies say shooting at a moving vehicle can worsen an already dangerous situation: If a suspect is struck, that doesn’t necessarily mean the car will stop, and bystanders may be at risk.
Experts say permitting officers to shoot at vehicles also allows them to put themselves in perilous situations in which they are forced to shoot their way out, such as stepping in the way of a car.
“San Francisco’s ban on shooting at cars is in line with national best practices,” said Chuck Wexler, president of the Police Executive Research Forum, a prominent policy organization. “It’s about keeping both officers and the public safe.”
Loftus said the proposal allows officers to use their judgment in extraordinary situations like the Bastille Day attack. The introduction to the policy states, “No policy can predict every situation. Officers are expected to exercise sound judgment and critical decision making.”
Referring to the woman who was killed in May while allegedly driving a stolen car, Loftus said, “What they want is something that will allow for what happened to Jessica Williams, and we don’t want that.”
Vivian Ho is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com