A couple alleges that police discouraged them providing statements regarding an aggravated assault. The District Attorney, an SFPD representative allegedly told them, was unlikely to pursue it
by JULIAN MARK MAY 22, 2021 (MissionLocal.org)
At around 8:40 p.m. Tuesday, May 11, Gigi Tonguet stepped outside of her Excelsior District apartment to wait for a food delivery. After lighting a cigarette, she noticed a man standing across the street.
It was not the delivery person.
“I instantly got chills,” said Tonguet, 33. “Instead of continuing walking, he just stared at me and arched his back and started slowly walking towards me.”
The man was wearing some kind of white hooded robe, she recalled, and he carried a sharp, metallic object in his hand. As Tonguet moved to go back inside, she said, the man charged at her, yelling: “Where do you think you’re going?”
The woman ran inside as fast as she could and just barely slammed the door shut. The man attempted to push it open, and Tonguet saw him use the sharp object to stab at the glass. “I thought he was going to break the glass,” she said.
Tonguet tried to run up the stairs to her apartment, but her legs “felt like noodles,” and she fell down the stairs, bruising her arms and bumping her head, causing what she described as a concussion. When she gathered herself and finally reached her apartment moments later, she called 911.
“I was reacting and realizing that he could have killed me,” she said.
Police tracked down the man minutes later. After a standoff, he was apprehended. Shortly after the incident, a 911 dispatcher told Tonguet what had happened and that the man was in police custody, she said. Tonguet said she wanted to give a statement to police, and the dispatcher said she’d receive a call.
A call never came. And to the surprise of Tonguet and her partner, Julian Ostrow, police discouraged them from reporting the crime, the couple alleges.
That Thursday, after learning through regularly updated crime data that the man was in custody on a 72-hour psychiatric hold, Ostrow called the Ingleside Police Station. He was told the officer to whom he needed to speak would not be available to take a statement until the weekend — well past when the man would be released from his “5150” psychiatric hold. After hanging up the phone, Ostrow was unsettled, so he called back.
Another police representative answered and repeated that the couple needed to wait until the weekend to provide a statement. But the representative said something else that gave Ostrow pause: “They expressed that because it was a ‘5150,’ the DA was unlikely to pursue it whether we made a statement or not, even with the additional details.”
“So we can come give a statement if we want,” Ostrow said of his impression of the conversation, “but it’s not really going to make a difference and nothing’s going to happen with it.”
Ostrow felt the message was implicitly political — a shot at District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a progressive prosecutor facing two recall campaigns which dubiously argue that crime is on the rise in San Francisco and Boudin is responsible for it.
The account provided by Tonguet and Ostrow comports to what the District Attorney’s office has been alleging for months: That San Francisco Police officers are declining to investigate crimes and stating it’s because the DA will not prosecute them.
“We hear reports about this all the time,” Boudin said during a December 2020 public Zoom conversation with Chief Bill Scott. The reports include “cases involving serious crimes like residential burglaries, where officers are unable or unwilling to collect fingerprints or video because of this false assertion.”
In response, the chief said during the December conversation that he knew of those reports and said, “we don’t condone that.” The chief noted, however, that there is a very real “frustration” among SFPD officers who see certain suspects taken to jail and released in a repeating cycle.
“But there is a professional and a right way to handle that,” the chief said.
That was in December. But now, in May, Ostrow and Tonguet say they’ve experienced the issue first-hand — and the consequences are real.
Tonguet and Ostrow got a hold of a police investigator during the weekend, but were discouraged from giving statements and told the report could not be amended, the couple said. Only when they pushed harder did another police lieutenant allow the couple to submit their accounts of the alleged crime. They received a follow-up from another investigator the following Tuesday, informing them that police are now pursuing the case.
The knife-wielding suspect, however, had been released, and police could not track him down because he had provided a fake name when he was first apprehended, Ostrow said he was told. And when police sent an officer to retrieve video evidence of the attack, the footage had already been erased by the system, Ostrow said. Ostrow was only able to capture some of the footage with his cell phone before it was erased.
“It’s pretty clear what we experienced is because of a lack of follow up on [the police’s] part — because of their discouragement to take our statement while they still had the suspect in custody,” Ostrow said. “He was released, we don’t know his identity, and crucial evidence is lost.”
In an emailed statement, Officer Adam Lobsinger, a police spokesman, largely corroborated the accounts Tonguet and Ostrow gave regarding the night of the attack — that police apprehended the man on the night of May 11, held him for a psychiatric evaluation, and did not take the couple’s statements until May 16.
He acknowledged that police records show a 911 dispatcher contacting Tonguet at around 9 p.m. on May 11 following her initial call to police. “It appears that officers did not make contact with that reporting party in the course of the incident,” Lobsinger wrote. “The commanding officer of Ingleside Station is reviewing this matter.”
“The Department is also working with our partners at the Department of Emergency Management (DEM) in an effort to improve service to our community,” he added.
Lobsinger also described how the man was apprehended — and why police sent him to a hospital for a mental health evaluation. At around 8:45 p.m. on May 11, police responded to reports of a man with a knife suffering from a mental health crisis. He was in the street yelling with a knife in his hand.
As officers tried to detain the man, he fled, throwing off all of his clothing — presumably the white robe Tonguet saw him wearing. The man stopped again and “then advanced on the officers.” Police shot him twice with a less-lethal firearm. He fell to the ground, but clung to his knife and began cutting himself. (Ostrow said police informed him that the man cut off his “finger or thumb.”)
All told, it was a 30-minute standoff, Lobsinger said, in which police successfully used de-escalation and time-and-distance techniques to take the man into custody without badly injuring him.
“The SFPD is committed to investigating all reported crimes and incidents,” Lobstinger said, adding: “Every case is different and there is no prescribed timeline to conduct follow up interviews with victims and witnesses.”
Rachel Marshall, a DA spokeswoman, was frustrated by the situation.
“We are deeply troubled by reports of officers falsely claiming we have a policy of not prosecuting certain kinds of cases,” she said, adding that the DA has no policy preventing the prosecution of someone held for psychiatric evaluation.
Police frequently present the DA cases in which a suspect had been “5150ed upon arrest,” meaning arrested for a crime while also being held for psychiatric evaluation.
Marshall made herself clear: “We cannot prosecute a case when the police fail to properly investigate it, collect evidence, and/or fail to make an arrest at all.”
Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times. More by Julian Mark
(Contributed by Alvin Lee)