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San Francisco cop threatened to shoot man in the back 3 times, case tossed

A composite image of San Francisco Police Dept (SFPD) officer Christopher Kosta, inset, and the exterior of the San Francisco Hall of Justice. | Source: The Standard

Months before he was taken off patrol, a San Francisco police officer said he saw a man drinking from a bottle of Hennessy on a gritty Downtown street. When the officer tried to stop him, the man ran away.

But body-worn camera footage from the arrest didn’t show the man drinking from the bottle. Instead, the footage captured Officer Christopher Kosta threatening to shoot him in the back three times while chasing him.

“I’ll shoot you in the back,” Kosta shouted. “I swear to God, I will.”

While the man was charged with having a gun and drugs on him that day, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Bruce Chan tossed the case on Wednesday, finding that the discovered contraband was the fruit of an “unlawful detention.”

In making his decision, Chan noted discrepancies between the footage and testimony by Kosta on Wednesday. The judge also took issue with Kosta suggesting that his threats to shoot the man in the back were a tactic he learned in the academy, which Kosta later conceded was not the case.

“I simply don’t see the reason, the adequate justification for that type of encounter,” Chan said.

Chan made his decision after the public defender in the case, Max Breecker, attacked Kosta’s credibility as a witness.

While Chan said he did not consider it in his ruling, Kosta is at the center of a racially charged controversy over San Francisco police officers improperly reporting data that they are required to collect on people they stop. Drawing on the news, Breecker accused Kosta of threatening to shoot his client, Michael Jones, because he is a Black man.

“If I was there, me, a white guy, with a bottle of anything, would an officer come up at gunpoint and threaten to kill me?” Breecker told The Standard after the hearing. “Absolutely not. In my view, it was done because of the color of his skin. And you can’t do that under the Constitution.”

Scott Burrell, an attorney for Kosta, was not present in court but told The Standard that “race had nothing to do with this case.”

An image, from SFPD’s website shows the department's 263rd Academy class photo on May 24, 2019, includes an image of Officer Christopher Kosta (inset).

Racial Bias Probe Raises Doubts

In May, a bias investigation by the Department of Police Accountability found that one officer committed misconduct by repeatedly entering the wrong races of people he stopped into a state database.

The officer did so despite getting the races of some of those individuals correct in his police reports. He mostly misidentified people of one particular racial group, investigators found.

While the officer was not named in a public summary of the investigation, San Francisco Police Department records reviewed by The Standard indicate that Kosta is the officer facing discipline in the case.

But the stop data controversy goes beyond Kosta. The case raised questions about the veracity of the data that the department is required to collect under state law to recognize racial disparities and curb racial bias.

Last week, The Standard analyzed SFPD stop data and found that one sergeant reported that all but six of more than 1,139 people he stopped were white, raising questions about whether that sergeant was also misreporting stop data.

The Standard also discovered that three officers, none of whom are Kosta, reported that a large share of the people they stopped belonged to five or more racial groups. For example, these officers may have recorded that a single person they stopped was Asian, Black, Hispanic/Latino, Middle Eastern or South Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander and white.

Separately, the Department of Police Accountability, which investigates citizen complaints against officers, has observed similar trends. The director of the agency, Paul Henderson, said last week that his office has seen officers fail to record required data, enter the wrong races of people and log multiple races for an individual to “obscure any obvious or specific racial makeup.”

Without speaking about a specific investigation, Police Chief Bill Scott has acknowledged that his department needs to further audit the data. However, he has pushed back on the notion that a sergeant only stopping a handful of nonwhite people out of more than 1,000 individuals is a red flag.

San Francisco is not the only place having troubles with the stop data its officers are required to record. In Connecticut, for example, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation after an audit found more than 100 state troopers may have reported stops that never happened.

Kosta, 27, graduated from the police academy in 2019 and was most recently assigned as a patrol officer at Southern Station before Scott transferred him to an administrative position at the records room in June, which can be a sign that an officer is in trouble.

Unlike most police officers, Kosta did not come to court Wednesday wearing a uniform or carrying a gun. Instead, he wore a white T-shirt and joggers. While on the stand, he confirmed that he was under investigation—but didn’t say why—and that he no longer carried a firearm on duty.

He declined to speak with The Standard outside the courtroom.

‘Things Can Happen in Nanoseconds’

The arrest that put him on the witness stand Wednesday unfolded Feb. 15 while Kosta and his partner were patrolling the South of Market area. Kosta was in the passenger seat of a patrol car when he said he saw a man, Jones, drinking from a bottle of Hennessy near Minna and Sixth streets.

When Kosta got out of the patrol car to confront him, Jones began walking away and then started to run, Kosta said in court. 

Kosta testified that he started threatening to use force against Jones if he did not stop running. He can be heard threatening to shoot Jones in the back on body-worn camera footage from the chase, which was played in court.

Kosta said he saw Jones pull something out of his pocket or his waistband and place it on the sidewalk by a parked Ford Mustang before continuing to run. Kosta ultimately caught up to Jones and placed him in handcuffs.

Other officers at the scene found about a gram of cocaine inside a rolled-up dollar bill on Jones and a .22 caliber revolver on the sidewalk, near where Kosta saw him drop something, according to Kosta.

Kosta said he wanted to cite Jones for two infractions: drinking in public and having an open container. He then gave chase when Jones committed a misdemeanor by resisting arrest, Kosta said.

When asked to explain why he threatened to shoot Jones in the back three times, Kosta explained that he was trained that “saying a really dramatic lie” can get someone to stop resisting arrest. That spurred Chan to interject.

“Are you telling me that you've been trained that if someone's a shoplifter … that you can threaten to shoot them for a property crime?” Chan asked.

Kosta then acknowledged he was not in fact trained to make such threats but instead instructed to “ruse a threat in general.”

“Looking back at it and hearing it now, I do regret using that exact verbiage,” he said.

The prosecutor on the case, Jordyn Sequeira, argued that Kosta was credible and that his statements were consistent with the body-worn camera footage.

“Things can happen in nanoseconds and very quickly, which can't be captured completely on a video, especially when two people are running,” Sequeira said. “You're not going to get every detail that you would get if you were in that situation pursuing the defendant.”

But Chan concluded that the body-worn camera footage did not show Jones drinking from the bottle. He also said it was unclear from the footage whether Jones was reaching for his waistband during the chase.

Burrell, Kosta’s attorney, disagreed with the decision to dump the case. He said Jones was “an ex-felon in possession of a gun in violation of state and federal law; and he possessed an open container of alcohol.

“There was plenty of evidence of both of these facts,” Burrell said. “Why that wasn’t enough for the judge, I don’t know. But I do know that sometimes judges get it wrong.”