SFPD Defense of Cop Shooting? Victim’s Fatal Wound Was ‘Self-Inflicted’

While community outrage continues to run high and video of the shooting spreads across the Web, residents want real police accountability.

By Bryan Gerhart Jul 25, 2011

San Francisco police announced late last week that Kenneth Harding might have taken his own life during a shootout with Bayview police, a revelation that only adds to the confusion surrounding the young man’s death and residents’ anger over the second police shooting in as many weeks.

Tension between the community and San Francisco Police Department is already running high following the incident, which began with a Muni fare inspection and ended with the 19-year-old bleeding to death in front of police armed with weapons and bystanders armed with cell phone cameras. More than 300 people attended a town hall meeting with Police Chief Greg Suhr at the Bayview Opera House last Wednesday, but a chorus of booing and demands for answers by frustrated residents prevented the officer from giving his presentation.

The meeting, which followed an earlier protest of Bay Area police, was strained from the beginning. Police Chief Suhr’s statement of love for the Bayview was met with boos and shout of "No you don’t!" from the audience, primarily composed of residents of the largely Black neighborhood. Attendees soon took over the microphone, airing grievances and demanding answers for a number of instances involving police hostility, many of which were unrelated to the death of Harding, a Seattle resident. "I am not prepared to answer those questions," Suhr tried to explain. "I am prepared to answer questions about the Saturday shooting."

Details of the July 16th shooting continue to surface, but the story remains muddled. Last week’s announcement that the bullet that killed Kenneth Harding did not come from a police firearm does little to mitigate the community’s frustration and the belief of many Bayview residents that the police department might be lying about the episode. SFPD Commander Mike Biel seems to know how this recent development looks, telling reporters, "I understand how the community feels, however, our investigation is based on total fact."

However, as previously reported, many hold that the facts surrounding the events of July 16th aren’t the point. "There’s a concern by both the Bayview and progressive communities regarding the real reluctance to talk about this as an issue of police accountability," said Co-executive Director of People Organized to Win Employment Rights Alicia Garza, who attended last week’s hectic town hall meeting. "Folks did not want to be talked at, they wanted to engage in a dialogue with police about accountability."

"There were a lot of young people who were angry and enraged at what they see as yet another example of a disregard for a community," said Garza. "No one there was lifting up [Kenneth Harding] as a hero," she explained, "But everybody said that police violence and police harassment and just general disrespect by the police is a common occurrence, and it’s too common."

This latest shooting came just a week after Bay Area transit officers shot and killed Charles Blair Hill at the city’s Civic Center station. Witnesses claim that Hill, who was reportedly homeless, appeared drunk but did not seem to pose a threat to officers. 

As evidenced by the meeting, police are still not willing to hold this sort of discussion, and instead are focused on the details of the shooting itself, a clear attempt at maintaining transparency, which critics feel was nearly non-existent in the recent slaying of Charles Blair Hill by BART police officers. 

Kenneth Harding’s gun has still not been recovered. Police and witnesses say it was fired twice at officers who chased him, and SFPD originally claimed that the weapon was found at the nearby home of a parolee. They now believe, based on a citizen-captured video of the incident, that the gun and shell casings (which were also missing from the scene) were picked up by a resident wearing a gray hoodie. SFPD is offering a $1000 reward for information on the weapon’s whereabouts.

"One of the common narratives out there is that there’s no reason to distrust the police," Alicia Garza said, "That really negates the experience of many communities in San Francisco whose stories don’t get media coverage but that experience a level of police harassment and violence on a regular basis."