San Francisco police on Monday released video footage and described the disturbing events that led officers to shoot and kill a man earlier this month after he walked into the airport carrying a knife and two airsoft guns in an apparent mental health crisis.
Nelson Szeto, 37, was shot and killed by police early Jan. 20 during a standoff with officers at San Francisco International Airport. Police released numerous videos from the shooting Monday during a virtual town hall meeting.
The videos show a hostage negotiator and officers pleading with Szeto to put down his weapons before police opened fire with rifles. While officers on scene seemed to think the guns were real, authorities later determined that his pistols were actually airsoft guns.
Police Cmdr. Paul Yep, who detailed the shooting at the meeting, said Szeto asked officers to shoot him and told them, “Make sure to aim.”
The shooting happened after 911 callers reported a suspicious man across from the BART Station at the international terminal at around 7:26 a.m.
The video footage shows Szeto was carrying a knife in one hand and an airsoft gun in the other when an officer first approached him. He later pulls out a second airsoft gun from his jacket and begins pacing back and forth with fake firearms in his hands.
“We don’t want something tragic to happen,” a police negotiator later tells him. “You’re a nice guy. Put that gun down and let’s talk about this.”
The videos show one officer shot Szeto in the leg with a less-lethal projectile, leading Szeto to lift his left arm with the airsoft gun in his hand. An officer fires two shots at him, causing Szeto to fall to the ground.
Officers then order Szeto to “put the gun down,” but he appears to begin to raise his other arm when police release a barrage of bullets at him.
Szeto was pronounced dead at the scene.
Cmdr. Yep identified the officers who opened fire as Erik Whitney, Oliver Lim, Steven Uang and David Wakayama.
The incident is being investigated by multiple agencies, including the California Department of Justice, which is required to investigate all deadly police shootings of unarmed civilians under a new law from July 2021. An airsoft gun is not considered a deadly weapon under the law.
John Crew, a retired ACLU attorney and longtime critic of the department, called into the meeting to question whether police should have used a bean-bag gun against Szeto. He said the use of such weapons could unnecessarily escalate situations rather than de-escalate them.
“The department knows that people in mental health crisis, using that gun is not always going to work,” Crew said.
While the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office initially investigated the case because the airport is within its jurisdiction, the California Department of Justice took over the probe after it was confirmed that Szeto was armed with airsoft guns rather than real guns.
At Monday’s meeting, Police Chief Bill Scott said his department still could not say whether the guns were real because other agencies quickly took over the case.
“The San Francisco Police Department did not have control over any of the evidence, nor does it to this day,” Scott said. “We cannot put out information that we cannot confirm, and at the time of the incident, we could not confirm what type of weapon that was.”
Michael Barba can be reached at [email protected]