This much is clear: Derrick Gaines died at the Arco gas station on Westborough Boulevard. A gun was found at the scene; the officer said he feared for his life when he saw Gaines, 15, pull it from his waistband after the teen ran away when the officer tried to stop him for “suspicious behavior.”
In the wake of the shooting, some have expressed grief and shock over the violent death of a young man . Friends, family and supporters have questioned whether this was a case of overcharged, and perhaps racially charged, police violence.
Many other community members have staunchly defended the police officer who was facing a gun and had seconds to decide if his life was in danger. The officer’s identity has not been released, and it’s unknown whether he had interacted with Derrick Gaines before the shooting. But South San Francisco has not had a fatal officer-involved shooting in at least 30 years, and there’s no evidence that this officer has ever been the target of an investigation.
Innocent victim or violent teenager? In the middle of these opposing perceptions is Derrick, a kid who had lived within walking distance of the gas station where he died since the age of two and had gone through the South San Francisco public schools. As a child, he overcame great physical challenges and charmed teachers, some of whom came out to mourn him and wrote sympathy cards to his family. As an adolescent, he was removed from all three South San Francisco middle schools, spent time in Juvenile Hall and was sentenced to probation.
"He was a good kid. He was looking for direction," said his stepfather, Michael Red.
Derrick was born with two club feet and a cleft palate, requiring surgeries and regular medical attention from a young age, according to his great aunt, Dolores Piper, who works in food sales. Piper, now 70, and her husband, Jim, brought Derrick to live with them in the South San Francisco home they’d occupied since 1972 when he was about 2 or 3. They felt they could better take care of him and attend to his medical needs than his parents, who were experiencing instability in their lives at that time, Piper said. The Pipers became Derrick’s legal guardians when he was 5.
Derrick’s physical problems stayed with him throughout his life; he couldn’t run well or participate in organized sports, and he had pain in his ankles, feet and legs into his teenage years, Dolores Piper said. One leg grew faster than the other, causing him to limp. He spoke softly and started speech therapy at a young age.
“He was nice; he was smart,” said Laurie Dolly, an SSFUSD speech therapist who started with Derrick when he was preschool age. “He was the only kid I knew who knew how to play chess.”
Derrick went to Monte Verde Elementary School where he was known as a savvy, articulate kid. He even participated in the school’s peer conflict resolution program, Piper said.
When Derrick was 8, his uncle, Jim Piper, died after an extended illness.
“That was tough on Derrick. Then it was just me and him,” Dolores Piper said. “I just held him tight.”
Piper said she always had Derrick’s friends over at her house, for board and video game marathons and later, freestyle rap sessions. She took the kids on outings, such as to the de Young Museum. She read to Derrick constantly, even into his teenage years; the Oz books were particular favorites.
When it came time for middle school, Derrick entered . He ended up getting transferred after being in three fights, which is district policy. He moved to , where he was expelled in the spring of 2010 as a seventh grader for bringing a knife to school. As Piper tells it, he threw on a jacket for a free-dress day without knowing the knife was in the pocket.
“He never came to school with weapons and brandished them or anything,” Piper said.
The knife incident earned Derrick probation and a short stint in Juvenile Hall. (He ended up going to Juvenile Hall a couple of times for less than 30 days total, according to Piper.)
In order to return to mainstream middle school, Derrick (along with Piper) participated in SSFUSD’s alternative to education program that summer. In a story about the program in the San Mateo Daily Journal, Derrick praised the program’s community service cleanup component.
“It’s like we’re making up for what we did,” Derrick told the Journal.
Piper took advantage of resources she learned about through the program, such as Edgewood kinship caregiver and youth support. But looking back, she sees gaps in the system.
“Everyone’s going to help, everyone’s going to guide, but in the long run you don’t have that consistency,” Piper said. “The consistency of a male.”
Derrick liked to get his hair cut every week at Burrell’s Hair Cutting Place on Grand Avenue, where he would get life advice from his barber, George Walker.
“I explained to him why not to hang out with the wrong people,” said Walker, whose drug addiction put him in jail repeatedly when he was young. “You hang out with people, you’re going to be like them. I told him, once you get in that system, it’s so hard to get out of it. The cops are going to know you now.”
“He just listened,” Walker said. “You could see his little mind like a sponge.”
Derrick next entered . He was expelled from Alta Loma twice and completed two stints at Foxridge Community Day School, the district’s program for expelled students, according to Jim Murphy, SSFUSD’s head of alternative education programs.
One expulsion came when he took money in exchange for agreeing to procure a weapon for another student, Piper said.
“He wasn’t going to do it,” Piper said. “He was not mean, not thuggish.”
But Piper said Derrick spoke of needing protection.
“He was smart, and he kind of knew the street,” Piper said.
Around December 2010, Derrick went to live with his father, also named Derrick Gaines, in San Francisco, where he stayed for a year. Piper thinks things eventually “went sour” between them, but said: “It was helpful because I think he got to know his dad.”
In January of this year, Derrick entered South San Francisco High School, according to Piper, but ended up being placed on an independent study program that he worked on from home. Derrick had wanted to be on independent study, but would still hang around school to socialize. The plan was for him to go to Baden High School in the fall, but he hoped to return to SSFHS, according to Piper.
Piper last spoke to Derrick an hour and a half before he died. He called her at the trade show she was at in Sacramento to check in.
“I’d just kind of like to get to the truth of this thing,” Piper said, who isn’t sure whether she believes that Derrick was carrying a gun. “I just don’t understand that night.”
Piper speculates that if Derrick was carrying a gun for protection, he may have taken it out to dump it in the bushes.
“He could have been Tased. He had bad feet and bad legs and couldn’t move very fast,” Piper said. “The question is, why were these boys detained and stopped in the first place?”
Police officers usually have whether to shoot a suspect, which they’re trained to do in a life-threatening situation.
“Obviously he had a gun, but I couldn’t see Derrick using a gun,” Walker said.
Civil rights attorney John Burris has launched an independent investigation into the shooting on behalf of the family. Some have claimed the shooting could have been the result of racial profiling (Derrick was mixed-race).
The San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office and the South San Francisco Police Department are also conducting their own investigations. But the police department maintains that Derrick’s actions “precipitate[d] the use of deadly force,” according to Capt. Mike Brosnan.
The police department hasn’t released any details about the officer involved, who is on administrative until the investigations are concluded.
“Derrick brought a tremendous amount of joy to me and my husband, and I think we gave him a beautiful life,” Piper said. “I think he had a lot of promise, and we were working on that.”
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