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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click to enlarge Besides a vigil held at the site where Pawlik was killed, there has been little attention paid to his death. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MARY HOWE
  • Photo courtesy of Mary Howe
  • Besides a vigil held at the site where Pawlik was killed, there has been little attention paid to his death.

The killings of Hogg and Shah highlight a controversial police tactic: surrounding unconscious armed people at gunpoint, waking them up suddenly and demanding they immediately surrender, and using lethal force against them if they make any motion that could be construed as threatening.

Attorney John Burris, who represented the families of both Hogg and Shah, told the East Bay Times shortly after the Hogg case settled that, "[Hogg] had a normal reaction a person would have when they are awakened from a deep sleep." If they wake up and find themselves in a chaotic situation where commands are being screamed at them with the threat of death imminent, they're likely to make a mistake, or panic and make a motion that could easily be construed as a threat.

Melissa Nold, an attorney with Burris' law firm who has been working with Palik's mother, said Pawlik may have been killed for similarly unnecessary reasons.

"When you rouse someone, you have to expect he's been out for maybe 45 minutes and he may not have any idea what's going on," said Nold. "The weapon near them doesn't give the police the right to kill. They're still required to comply with the laws in place about issuing warning with intent to shoot."

It's possible the four Oakland police officers who killed Pawlik did all they could to prevent the shooting. But it's also possible that they escalated the situation and fired their weapons when they didn't have to.

OPD told the Express that officers use tactics spelled out in the department's "Barricaded Subject Incidents/Hostage Negotiation/High Risk Arrest/Warrants" training bulletin when they come upon anyone who is armed and unconscious. The department declined to say if the training bulletin specifically addresses the situation of a sleeping or unconscious person, however. OPD also declined to make public a copy of the bulletin because it discusses strategies and tactics.

Besides identifying the officers who shot Pawlik, the department hasn't provided any further information about their roles in the incident or who else was on the scene, including their supervisors.

Two of the officers who shot Pawlik were recently sued by a Stockton resident who alleged that they racially profiled him and fabricated police reports to frame him for selling narcotics. Shelly Watkins said he was visiting Oakland to attend a Bible study two years ago when he was approached by a stranger in a West Oakland parking lot who asked for a cigarette. Watkins gave the man a smoke and some spare change. Minutes later, Watkins was pulled over while driving a couple blocks away. Officers Brandon Hraiz and William Berger arrested him and booked him into Santa Rita Jail for allegedly selling narcotics. But a search of Watkins' car and a strip search the officers forced him to undergo at the jail failed to turn up any drugs.

Berger wrote the report recommending the district attorney charge Watkins with a felony for selling narcotics and attested that multiple OPD officers viewed a drug transaction. But the DA eventually dropped the charges for lack of evidence.

The City of Oakland paid Watkins $50,000 in July to settle the case.

It wasn't like Pawlik to go missing for very long. Too many people on the streets of San Francisco knew him. He was a fixture in the Tenderloin, Civic Center, and the Lower Haight. When he was living on the streets, he'd camp out behind a church on Waller Street. Even when he was living in an SRO, he would be seen around the city. In the Tenderloin, he sometimes sat with friends on Larkin Street, by the Phoenix Hotel. It was a popular spot to score and shoot drugs or to just catch up on gossip.

Ironically, the district offices of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration are one block away, in the Phillip Burton Federal Building. From there, DEA agents can literally look down on the dozen or so people, mostly homeless youth, who gather in the afternoons to use heroin and crack. Every few months, the city sweeps the sidewalk clean, but the street kids always make their way back. The open-air drug markets along Turk and Eddy streets are also visible from the DEA's perch. In the Civic Center, Pawlik would sit with friends and talk for hours. He'd sometimes be seen in the back alleys along Polk or South of Market.

People noticed when Pawlik left San Francisco sometime in mid-February. It didn't take long for rumors to spread. Two of his friends, Jennifer and Ashley, said they heard Pawlik may have stolen the pistol he was found with out of a car. But the only use he would have had for a gun, they said, was to sell it for fast cash, and probably the best place to sell a stolen firearm was in Oakland.


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