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Deadly SFPD shooting was third time officer opened fire

Officer Gregory Buhagiar was photographed after a police shooting in 2018. | Courtesy Department of Police Accountability

The bullet that killed an armed man during a standoff in Bernal Heights last week was fired by a San Francisco police officer who discharged his gun in two prior police shootings, The Standard has learned.

Officer Gregory Buhagiar, a 22-year department veteran, is the officer who discharged his firearm during the deadly encounter with Sergio Barrios, 40, on May 19, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the incident.

The killing was not Buhagiar’s first police shooting.

Buhagiar was one of seven officers who in 2018 unleashed a barrage of bullets into a recreational vehicle after a murder suspect fired two gunshots from inside. No one was shot in the exchange of gunfire. A decade earlier, he was also one of two officers who fatally shot an armed man.

Buhagiar was cleared of wrongdoing in both prior shootings.

Body-worn camera footage shows Officer Gregory Buhagiar and six other officers opening fire during an exchange of gunfire in 2018. | Courtesy SFPD

While most officers never fire their guns, officers involved in one shooting tend to open fire again, according to Chuck Rylant, a retired Southern California police officer and use-of-force expert.

The factors leading to multiple shootings by one officer might have more to do with the dangers of their assignments than their decision-making, he said.

“It’s more of a reflection of the type of environment they are working in and what types of situations they are getting involved in,” Rylant said.

Buhagiar declined to comment and referred The Standard to police spokespeople for information about the most recent shooting. The department would not confirm that Buhagiar was the officer who shot Barrios but is expected to release further details about the case on Friday.

An internal SFPD photograph of Officer Gregory Buhagiar was released by the Department of Police Accountability following his 2018 shooting.

The shooting happened after officers responded to a report of a man with a gun at the New Bosworth Market, a corner store on Bosworth and Cuvier streets.

The man, later identified as Barrios, lived above the market and entered either the store or another residence on the property with a loaded gun and a bottle of alcohol, according to preliminary details released by police.

He appeared to be snorting cocaine in the market’s backyard and was shot while reaching for his gun during a standoff that lasted more than three hours, police said.

A History of Shootings

On Feb. 16, 2018, Buhagiar and a group of officers cornered an alleged carjacker and murder suspect who was holed up in an RV in Potrero Hill.

Video of the shooting shows chaos unfolding after heavily armed officers heard gunfire from inside the RV, with two officers falling to the ground.

Buhagiar, the most senior officer on the scene and a member of the tactical Specialist Team, later recalled that he emptied a 28-round magazine into the RV because he thought the suspect was shooting at him and his fellow officers from inside.

“I immediately felt like my life, like I was going to die, and I returned fire to that window,” he told an officer investigating the shooting, according to records released by the Department of Police Accountability, San Francisco’s police watchdog agency.

“I was trying to end the threat,” he added.

Officer Gregory Buhagiar describes why he fired his rifle in a 2018 shootout in an Internal Affairs interview. | Audio courtesy SFPD

Multiple investigations into the shooting found Buhagiar fired his gun lawfully and in compliance with police policy, records show.

However, a police watchdog investigation recommended that SFPD improve its policies for responding to people barricaded inside vehicles and homes.

“Patrol officers engaging a barricaded subject who is alone in an abode instead of retreating and waiting for specialists may escalate a situation and increase the safety risk to officers and civilians,” the investigation concluded.

One person who complained to the police watchdog agency about the shooting said that police “aggressively performed a tactical operation with total disregard, for not only my safety, but the safety of my entire family as well.”

A police photo shows bullet holes in the windshield of an RV following a 2018 shootout involving Officer Gregory Buhagiar. | Courtesy Department of Police Accountability

Buhagiar was also involved in another shooting more than a decade earlier, which was documented in internal records released by police.

On Jan. 26, 2007, Buhagiar and two other officers on the Specialist Team went to a pizza place in the Excelsior for food. Once inside, the manager told them that three men were causing problems and one of them may have had a knife.

After the officers took the men outside and began to search them, police said one of the men started to run away and pulled a gun from his waistband. The man, Mario Vargas, then pointed the gun at one of the officers and was shot after ignoring commands to drop the weapon, police said.

After the shooting, records show that Buhagiar said he thought Vargas was going to shoot his partner, Eric Chiang, dead.

“As he came up with the handgun pointed at Eric I drew my firearm,” Buhagiar said. “I immediately thought he was going to kill Eric and I fired at the suspect.”

Buhagiar and Chiang fired a total of 19 rounds, records show.

Police found that the shooting complied with department policy, and prosecutors also declined to file charges against the officers.

Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at
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