On the night of June 5, an encounter between a teenager and a police officer led to an event that South San Francisco hadn't seen in at least 30 years: .
According to officials, a South San Francisco police officer on duty initiated contact with two juveniles at the Arco gas station on Westborough Boulevard because they were acting "in a suspicious manner." One complied with the officer and one, 15-year-old Derrick Gaines, ran away.
At some point during the chase, police say Gaines removed a handgun from his waistband, at which point the officer feared for his life and shot him. Gaines would later die at San Francisco General Hospital.
"It's always a tragic and traumatic event for all involved when a suspect's actions precipitate the use of deadly force," said Police Capt. Mike Brosnan, promising a "lengthy" investigation by the police department and the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office.
"It's bull-- that the cop thought his life was in danger,"Jose Diaz, 23, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Come on, it's a 15-year-old kid with a handgun. He's a cop."
His friend Luis Gomez, 19, added, "Just because they got a badge on, they think they can do whatever they want."
For the victim's family, , and many questions seeking answers after a shooting.
For the officer involved, who has but a split second to decide if deadly force is necessary, the immediate future can also be difficult.
San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe recalled an incident in Menlo Park.
"There was a case, several years ago, where an officer just wasn't able to come back to work. He retired out," said Wagstaffe, "on the basis he was so emotionally distraught, he just simply did not want to be back in a position where he might, someday, be in the same shoes, and have to repeat the conduct."
One of the first things a police department will do—after all the preliminary questions have been answered—is send the officer involved to their agency psychiatrist.
"The days of Clint Eastwood and Dirty Harry; that's not life," Wagstaffe said.
A report commissioned by the National Institute of Justice in 2006 states "Prior research has found that many officers involved in shootings suffer from 'postshooting trauma'—a form of posttraumatic stress disorder that may include guilt, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. However, it may be that officers are more resilient than previously thought. One study has found that most suffer few long-term negative emotional or physical effects after shooting a suspect."
Among the specific findings included in the document, tallied after interviews with 80 officers involved in 113 incidents:
- Most officers reported that just before and as they pulled the trigger on the suspect, they experienced a range of psychological, emotional, and physiological reactions that distorted time, distance, sight, and sound. (See Table 1 attached to this article.) Many officers found their recollection of the events of the shooting to be imperfect. In extreme cases, officers could not recall firing their guns. In the days, weeks, and months that follow a shooting, officers may suffer adverse reactions such as sleep interruption, anxiety, and depression.
- Although some officers did not feel fear during a shooting, they still sensed imminent danger to themselves or others that met the standard for using deadly force.
- Contrary to earlier research findings, few officers in the study suffered long-lasting negative effects following a shooting. Officers’ postshooting responses were influenced by the attitudes and actions of investigators, colleagues, family members, and friends; these reactions diminished markedly as attention and activity around the incident lessened. (See table 2.)
The unnamed South San Francisco officer involved in the shooting has spoken with an investigator from Wagstaffe's officer.
"He was cooperative," Wagstaffe said.
The District Attorney's office is meant to be an independent overseer in the investigation of the event. San Mateo County has never prosecuted a police officer that was involved in a shooting, but has taken at least one case to a grand jury for final deliberation. In the mid-1980's, a shooting at San Mateo's Hillsdale Shopping Center was moved out of the DA's office. Ultimately, the grand jury felt the shooting was justified.
For now, the South City officer has much to go through.
"When we're approaching the officer and we're examining this, he is a suspect," Wagstaffe said. "He has a right to an attorney."
In the normal course of events, a determination of guilt or innocence by the district attorney's office takes about 6-8 weeks. The South San Francisco Police Department will conduct its own internal investigation.
According to the National Institute of Justice report, "Expressions of support from fellow officers, detailed discussions about the incident with officers who had previously shot a suspect, and taking department-mandated time off following the shooting were associated with slight or moderate reductions in officers’ negative reactions.
Conversely, officers who felt a lack of support from their colleagues and supervisors or that aspects of the investigation into the shooting were unfair or unprofessional reported more severe and longer-lasting negative reactions following the shooting, particularly after 3 months."
"If I was the police chief," said Wagstaffe, "I would be concerned about any officer who felt it wasn't something to be horribly upset about."
The officer involved is on administrative leave.