San Leandro police shooting at Walmart, outrage, could overtake a city unprepared for controversy

The shooting by San Leandro Police of Steven Taylor, a 33-year-old African-American man with a history of mental health issues, inside a Walmart on Saturday afternoon, is quickly attracting strong criticism from the community, and police accountability activists from across the country.  The blow back from the shooting, which was captured on a cell phone video at the Walmart on Hesperian Boulevard in San Leandro, threatens to hit a city government and police department ill-equipped to handle the barrage of criticism and protest about to come its way.

San Leandro Police arrived at the Walmart store in response to reports of a man swinging a baseball bat, the department said. After approaching Taylor, the officers twice used Taser guns to stun the suspect. A video shows Taylor staggering while holding the bat waist-high as one officer opened fire. A trail of blood can be seen on the floor before Taylor fell to the ground, along with screams from customers.

However, it is unclear if the officers shot Taylor while he was on the ground or whether a pop heard on the video was from an officer’s Taser.

Social media was enraged over the weekend as video of the shooting was disseminated on Twitter, Facebook, and later the local news. Some question whether the San Leandro police officers were justified in shooting Taylor when video suggested the incident had been neutralized. Others questioned why the officers acted so quickly with what appeared to be a number of Walmart employees and shoppers standing nearby.

San Leandro Police faced criticism last year after officers shot and killed Anthony Gomez, a 56-year-old man who police believed was wielding a firearm on his porch. Gomez also suffered from mental health issues. Police later found the suspected firearm was actually a piece of wood.

But for hints to how this current shooting in San Leandro may play out in the public, the aftermath of the November 2018 shooting of Agustin Gonsalez by Hayward Police may hold some clues.

Hayward Police said the officer’s decision to open fire was justified because Gonsalez, who they believe was carrying a knife, continued to approach one of the officers despite warnings to stop. The family and activist contend the video showed Gonsalez appearing to surrender before the officer, who had arrived on the same just seven seconds prior, shot and killed him. The Alameda County District Attorney’s office later cleared the three officers involved in the shooting, but cast doubt on whether Gonsalez was actually holding any type of object in his hands. Like Taylor in San Leandro, police officials later learned Gonsalez had struggled recently with mental health issues.

Most importantly, unlike the Taylor shooting, there was no immediate video evidence of the Gonsalez shooting in Hayward that could be parsed and disseminated quickly by the general public. Instead, Hayward Police later deployed a growing trend in law enforcement circles to produce videos of officer-involved shootings using high-production values to merge body-camera video with radio dispatch audio, and introductions by the police chief or captains to make the department’s case to the public.

Critics, however, believe the videos allow local law enforcement to paint the shootings in the best possible light. San Leandro Police used this type of video production in the Gomez shooting last year. With video of the Taylor shooting already in the public domain while the shooting is still fresh in the memory of the public, San Leandro Police is unlikely to benefit from this type of media messaging.

Instead, it appears San Leandro Police’s initial goal is to stay ahead of the story and be as transparent as possible. San Leandro Police Chief Jeff Tudor addressed the community on Facebook Live on Sunday. He called the shooting “tragic,” and acknowledged the public wants answers.

Similar to Hayward, where city and elected officials rarely face strong criticism of any kind from the public, San Leandro leaders have been equally inured from the wrath of an angry public. It’s not clear how San Leandro Mayor Pauline Russo Cutter and councilmembers will react if demonstrations break out. The city’s saving grace is that because of covid-19 and social distancing, such demonstrations may not initially materialize.

However, the state and county’s shelter in place order could be lifted in the next few months. Investigations by the city, police department and Alameda County District Attorney’s office could take months before offering reports. By this time social distancing protocols may allow for a much greater degree of public participation. Hayward’s controversy in the Gonsalez case, for example, has continued for more than a year.

Again, using Hayward and the Gonsalez shooting as an example, Hayward officials repeatedly avoided talking about the shooting because the incident was still under investigation and other privacy concerns, they said. But they also found it difficult to offer condolences to the Gonsalez family until after being severely criticized for a lack of empathy. The situation eventually spiraled out of control over a roughly six-month period last year. Public speakers ferociously lashed at city officials with profanity-laden diatribes. The vitriol led Hayward Mayor Barbara Halliday to stop several meetings before, infamously, moving one council meeting to behind closed doors, and without public participation.

San Leandro officials may already be falling into an early similar pattern. On Monday night, Mayor Cutter issued a statement on the Taylor shooting, offering condolences to his family and friends, but neglecting to mention his name. “My heart aches for the lost of life in our community over the past weekend,” she said at the start of Monday night’s council meeting. “It is understandable that people want answers now.” Cutter also added in her comments that Taylor had “passed away,” a reference that angered some public speakers on Monday night.

Aside from the San Leandro City Council lacking the type of battle-hardened demeanor that elected officials in Oakland or Berkeley may possess, San Leandro elected officials, like those in Hayward, are nearly unanimous in their support of law enforcement. Perhaps, more so than in Hayward, where the local firefighters union is also a political player, the San Leandro Police Officers Association is undoubtedly the city’s most powerful political mover and shaker for decades. Almost every councilmember is backed by the police union. Furthermore, the current council also includes Councilmember Pete Ballew, a former San Leandro Police lieutenant.