Disappeared in Death 

Homeless and mentally ill, Joshua Pawlik was unconscious right before four Oakland police officers killed him in March. His family and friends are seeking answers.

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"Josh was an original part of the SF Dogs," said Jennifer Peterson, a friend of Pawlik's who worked as a peer counselor for homeless youth in San Francisco.

One of several "tribes" made up of homeless and vagabond youngsters, many of them addicts and runaways, the SF Dogs bonded over music, including the Grateful Dead and reggae, and lived communally on the streets. Like generations of youngsters before them, they came to the Haight-Ashbury fleeing trauma, abusive families, and other demons. They survived through working odd jobs, panhandling, selling drugs, and sometimes doing sex work and other criminalized activities. Pawlik fit in.

"I was despondent he was living in the park," said Kelly. "But he said, 'Mom, I've never felt freer in my life.'"

In San Francisco, Pawlik gained a reputation as a generous bum and defender of the streets. He even made the news by helping organize a 2013 protest against park rangers who were accused of brutalizing homeless youth.

"I woke up to the two rangers picking me up, dumping me out of my sleeping bag onto my head, kicking me in the head," Pawlik told KTVU.

That same year, police arrested Pawlik and charged him with felony possession of marijuana with intent to sell. Pawlik, according to his friends, was selling weed and other drugs, but it wasn't profit-motivated so much as just a way to score his own drugs and have some extra money to spend.

Sometimes, under the trees or in a back alley, he would educate others on how to safely inject, and he would follow up with training on how to administer naloxone, which can reverse an opioid overdose.

"Josh would help people out," said Peterson. "He would give out clean needles. He'd set someone up if they didn't have money but were sick."

It may not seem like altruism, but for those who know the psychological toll of addiction, Pawlik's concern for others was at times selfless.

Another friend of Pawlik's, who asked not to be named, said she passed out once after shooting a particularly potent dose of heroin on the sidewalk. Pawlik stayed by her side for hours, at first to make sure she hadn't overdosed, and then to guard her belongings. "He didn't have to," she said. "Other people, even the people you thought were your friends who you've known for a long time, will take your stuff and disappear, and when you wake up you have nothing left. Not Josh."

Through the assistance of the Homeless Youth Alliance, Pawlik eventually moved into an SRO in the Tenderloin. He attended counseling sessions and worked toward treating his mental health issues and drug addiction.

Howe of the Homeless Youth Alliance, and Chelsea Swift, another harm-reduction educator, remember how Pawlik would request that they meet for counseling sessions up the street at Ben and Jerry's, where he'd get a pint of Chocolate Therapy ice cream or a milkshake.

But his schizophrenia undermined what fleeting forms of stability he was able to create with the help of others.

"Josh, as I knew him, was very paranoid of law enforcement," said Swift, who became close friends with Pawlik over several years. "He is someone who, just because of his experiences and the communities that he's involved in, he'll have way more police attention and contacts."

But for all his run-ins with the police, Pawlik had a thin record in San Francisco. Besides the 2013 marijuana arrest, he was only arrested and charged one other time. Late last year, he was arrested for possessing a small amount of methamphetamine — a misdemeanor at most.

"He was very aware of his place in society, as it viewed him," said Swift. "He knew he was always on this uphill battle."

The way that OPD treated Pawlik closely resembles another controversial officer-involved shooting that occurred in June 2015.

Demouria Hogg had inexplicably parked his car in a roadway near Lake Merritt with a pistol visible in the passenger seat. Then he fell asleep. It was 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday and police suspected the car of being linked to a burglary in San Francisco the night before. Firefighters were the first to show up, but when they saw the gun they backed away and called the police.

OPD responded by surrounding the car and training their guns on Hogg. They attempted to wake him up with sound and even beanbag rounds fired from a shotgun at the car's windows. After about an hour of failed attempts to rouse Hogg, the police finally broke a side window and hit him with a less-lethal Taser weapon. Hogg was now awake. An officer stationed at the front of the car to provide lethal cover believed Hogg was reaching over toward the passenger seat, so she shot and killed him.

The Alameda County District Attorney's office investigated the incident and cleared the officer of wrongdoing. OPD's internal affairs also appears to have cleared the officer of any serious policy violations, but the department doesn't comment on the results of its investigations.

Ultimately, the city paid $1.2 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Hogg's family.

A similar incident occurred in 2012 in Hayward when Mohammed Shah was sleeping in the front passenger seat of a car that had been reported stolen. A Hayward police officer noticed the car, ran its plate, and decided to wake up Shah and arrest him. According to court records, the officer banged on the car window, startling Shah out of his sleep. Shah responded by moving into the driver's seat. The officer then proceeded to break the driver's window and hit Shah with his palm. Finally, the officer commanded Shah to put his hands up. A witness in a park across the street saw Shah raise his hands, but then when one hand moved, the officer shot Shah several times. Later, the officer said the presence of a pocket knife somewhere in the car caused him to fear for his life, but Shah's relatives said that the officer caused an unnecessarily disorienting and dangerous situation that could have been resolved peacefully. Attorneys for Shah's relatives also claimed that the knife wasn't discovered until after other officers arrived.


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