Last week, a San Francisco police officer shot 32-year-old Pralith Pralourng to death on Pralourng's lunch break. Pralourng, an Oakland man of Thai descent, was suspected of having slashed a friend of his with a box cutter at their job in a chocolate factory on the San Francisco pier. When the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) caught up with Pralourng, we don't exactly know what happened, but the latter wound up with two smoking holes in his chest, and the cop who fired the bullets that put them there was suspended with pay. Her name was not released.
We have been offered two conflicting accounts of what happened in that missing chunk, right around the time the gun went off. One, offered by SFPD Chief Greg Suhr, was faithfully reported by the few mainstream press outfits that took note of the incident. The other, witness testimony captured in footage posted to YouTube by Robert Benson, an activist with Occupy San Francisco (whose base of operations is near the site of the shooting), is being dismissed outright. In Suhr's version, Pralourng - who reports have since revealed suffered from schizophrenia - had to be stopped by lethal force from cutting an officer. In the account depicted by witness, Pralourng was murdered gratuitously, while he was handcuffed.
Let us review the candidate explanations. According to the official account, "An officer confronted the suspect at Washington and Davis Streets. The suspect took his hand out of his pocket, holding the box cutter. When the suspect was ordered to drop the weapon, he lunged at the officer. The officer discharged her firearm several times.
"The suspect fell face down on the pavement and the officer handcuffed him. When she turned the suspect over, the officer discovered that he had been struck by gunfire in the torso area. The officer immediately requested EMS to the scene, removed the handcuffs and began to render aid. Paramedics arrived and transported the suspect to [San Francisco General Hospital], where he died from his injuries."
So: Pralourng attacked, the officer shot him twice in the chest at close range. Very cinematic. Then, he fell to the ground dying, she handcuffed him, she noticed he was dying, she took off the handcuffs and then she cared for his wounds. Less cinematic.
By way of contrast, Benson's first video was posted less than a half hour after the incident, well before Suhr could organize a press conference. Benson, from behind the camera, asks a witness, "So what happened here?" The seemingly distraught man responds, "The police shot somebody. In the chest, twice. They said that the man had a gun or something but he didn't. He was just a civilian." Benson: "What was he doing?" Witness: "Nothing. They had him in cuffs. And they shot him. Twice."
The footage shows Benson going over to two of the many cops and giving them an earful. They ignore him. Pralourng is seen being loaded into the ambulance. The film captures the street signs and the scene is recognizably identical to other photographs and clips from local news footage.
Benson subsequently posted another video, which shows another witness describing the shooter as "a female officer" - a detail Chief Suhr disclosed to the press - "with short blond hair." The witness says he saw Pralourng in handcuffs and turned to continue on his way when he heard what he thought were firecrackers, but were, in fact, gunshots. Benson harangues more cops; they continue to ignore him.
Let us assess the credibility of each of these accounts.
In order to accept Chief Suhr's account, you have also to believe that:
- at a crime scene where a man had just lunged at a cop with a knife and been shot twice in the chest, then cuffed, then uncuffed, then treated, then carted off, an activist-videographer staged a scene where shaken passersby pretended that a much simpler course of events unfolded, and then he immediately uploaded it to YouTube, all in less than thirty minutes.
In order to accept the testimony in the footage, you only have to believe that:
- the police would lie if they killed someone in handcuffs and there were no footage to prove it.
To assess the credibility of Chief Suhr's account, I called Michael Andraychak, the public information officer for the SFPD. I asked him whether it was standard operating procedure to cuff a suspect after shooting him twice in the chest. I hadn't found anything in any of the General Orders governing police conduct to advise this. "If the person is still a threat," he explained, "the fact that someone's laying on the ground doesn't preclude them from attacking you, especially if they're armed."
Why did Chief Suhr find it necessary to mention this extremely brief cuffing exercise? "Some people apparently claimed that he was handcuffed prior to being shot," said Officer Andraychak, "which is clearly not the case. There were eyewitnesses the police interviewed who came forward and said what happened. I am aware that one person in those YouTube videos was interviewed by the police and eventually said that he hadn't in fact seen what he said he saw."
Perhaps the balance of available evidence convinces you that Suhr and Andraychak are more reliable than the footage. Local blog SFist, for instance, finds the footage suspect because Benson "also features a slew of Occupy-related footage on his YouTube account." SFist therefore cautions readers to take the videos with a "major grain of salt."
Benson's association with Occupy SF apparently places a heavier incentive on him to lie about police misconduct than Suhr and Andraychak's association with the SFPD places on them - even though it is not his testimony, but that of witnesses unaffiliated with Occupy SF with which we are concerned.
In nearly a year of covering Occupy protests, I have never encountered a time when the police were so upstanding that activists were driven to having to make up violent episodes in order to portray police officers unfavorably. What would Benson have to gain by staging the scene? What would the planted witnesses have to gain by falsely accusing the cop of murder? What would they have to lose if the truth - that the cop adhered to policy - got out?
By way of contrast, California police forces' shooting of handcuffed suspects is not only conceivable; it is virtually routine. In 2009, footage of Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officers shooting one of Praloung's fellow Oaklanders, 22-year-old Oscar Grant III, while in police custody spread, on the Internet and sparked huge community backlash. Do you think that, in the absence of the video, BART police would have admitted the truth?
In just the week since Praloung's shooting, Anaheim police shot and killed 25-year-old Manuel Diaz as he lay in handcuffs. When outraged locals threw bottles at the police, Anaheim's finest responded by firing beanbags and rubber-coated bullets and releasing an attack dog into the crowd of men, women, children, babies and the elderly. The police claimed that the dog had escaped from a police car's open window, which must make it true.
It was not the citizens of Anaheim's anger at the cops, but rather the San Francisco police officer's impulse to defend herself by killing Pralith Pralourng that Officer Andraychak spoke of when he told me, "Perhaps you're not able to understand that."
Perhaps I'm not.