By Alex Emslie
Matthew Hoffman, the 32-year-old man shot and killed by two San Francisco police sergeants in the Mission District Sunday evening, had made inquiries about lethal-force policies long before the incident, Police Chief Greg Suhr says.
Suhr said during a community meeting Tuesday night that police in Norwalk, Connecticut, alerted them after the shooting that Hoffman had sent a series of texts to an officer there last March.
The messages asked, “What would happen if a person would point a fake gun at a cop, from 6 feet away?” and “What if the person told the cop he was going to shoot the cop after a count of three?”
Hoffman was shot about 5:20 p.m. Sunday outside the Police Department’s Mission Station after reportedly brandishing what turned out to be a replica pistol. After the shooting, investigators discovered what they’ve characterized as three suicide notes on Hoffman’s smartphone, one of which was titled, “Dear Officer(s).” Suhr said he spoke by phone with Hoffman’s father, who gave permission to release the “Dear Officer(s)” message.
The note expresses sadness and loneliness and says officers “did nothing wrong.” It says, “I provoked you … the situation was out of your control. You had no other choice.”
Hoffman approached pairs of San Francisco police officers two times on Sunday afternoon before his fatal confrontation at Mission Station, Suhr said. First, at about 2:15 p.m., Hoffman asked officers conducting a traffic stop about their firearms and if they had ever shot anyone.
He approached a second pair of officers about an hour later and asked similar questions. Both times, officers told Hoffman to leave, Suhr said.
Then shortly after 5 p.m., a group of officers leaving Mission Station for coffee noticed Hoffman in the restricted parking lot and asked him to leave, and he started to walk away, Suhr said. But he stopped in the driveway.
The officers began to approach Hoffman again.
“Mr. Hoffman, instead of turning and walking away, backs away from the officers, both hands in his sweatshirt pocket, engaging the officers in eye contact to the point where the officers draw their weapons and ask Mr. Hoffman many times to show his hands,” Suhr said. “As he backs out of the driveway and across the sidewalk and into the street, he lifts his sweatshirt where the officers see the butt of a gun, pulls the weapon, points it at the officers, and the two sergeants fire their weapons a total of 10 times, five each, striking Mr. Hoffman three times -– one to the upper body, one to the forearm and one to the left leg.”
Officers discovered Hoffman had a “black Colt defender 3½-inch barrel airsoft pistol,” a replica handgun with the orange markings blackened, Suhr said. Hoffman died later Sunday at San Francisco General Hospital.
Several people attending the meeting asked about training officers to respond to people with mental illness, specifically referencing Crisis Intervention Training, or CIT.
“I’d like to hear that there was some sort of verbal interaction beyond, ‘Get out of the parking lot,’ ” said Mission resident Lisa Geduldig. “You know, ‘What are you doing? Are you OK?’ or just trying to suss out the person’s mental health. Again, I’m not a cop and I don’t have a gun pulled on me.”
More than 300 officers, over 20 percent of SFPD’s patrol force, have received the specialized, weeklong training, Suhr said. He didn’t know if any of the officers who encountered Hoffman were among those trained.
“This was not a CIT incident. This was an engagement of deadly force,” Suhr said. “If an officer is confronted with deadly force, especially by a person who plans to draw the officer’s fire, there’s not much we can do.”
A man in the crowd said he was concerned that officers appear to have fired seven bullets that missed Hoffman and could have flown across Valencia Street. Police are investigating where the other bullets struck, Suhr said. No one but Hoffman was injured in the incident.
An internal five-year study of the department’s officer-involved shootings published in 2010 found that four fatal shootings out of a total 15 incidents were potentially suicide deaths. The indications listed include a subject telling officers they would have to kill him and a subject pointing a replica firearm at an officer.
The study doesn’t mention any case in which a note was found.
“It just, it couldn’t be any sadder,” Suhr said. “If somebody is thinking of harming themselves, I wish that all those people know that we have a lot of services. And we in the Police Department, if you want that help, we can get it for you. That’s much more the preferred way we’d like to be used to help people in crisis, because this just creates so many other victims.”