As word spread to San Francisco that police in Ferguson, Mo., were taking reporters into custody and firing tear gas at demonstrators outraged by the death of Mike Brown, a small group of writers and organizers with ties to the Mission District was gearing up to hold street demonstrations of its own.
On Aug. 21 and 22, they staged vigils and a march and rally in memory of a different shooting victim: Alejandro (“Alex”) Nieto, who died suddenly in Bernal Heights Park on March 21 after being struck by a volley of police bullets.
Despite palpable anger expressed during the events held to mark five months since Nieto’s death, it was a far cry from the angry demonstrations unleashed on the streets of Ferguson, where it was like something stretched too far and snapped.
People who knew Nieto gathered for a sunset vigil in Bernal Heights Park at the place where he was killed. They returned the following morning for a sunrise vigil, incorporating a spiritual element with Buddhist chanting. Hours later, in a march preceded by dancers who spun in the streets, donning long feathered headdresses and ankle rattles made out of hollowed tree nuts, they progressed from Bernal Hill to the San Francisco Federal Building.
Despite a visible police mobilization, the protests remained peaceful, with little interaction between officers and demonstrators. Instead, the focus remained on the contents of a civil rights complaint filed Aug. 22 by attorney John Burris, famous for his track record of representing victims of police violence.
Burris, who is representing Nieto’s parents, said he rejected the SFPD’s explanation of why officers were justified in discharging their weapons and killing Nieto. “What we will seek to do is to vindicate his interests, his good name, and to show through the evidence that the narrative put forth by the police was just flat-out wrong,” Burris said at the rally.
Nieto’s encounter with police arose because a 911 caller erroneously reported that he had a black handgun, leading police to enter the park in search of a gunman. In reality, Nieto possessed a Taser, not a firearm. On the night he was killed, he’d gone to the park to eat a burrito just before starting his shift as a part-time security guard at a nightclub, where all the guards carry Tasers. In addition to working at that job, Nieto, who was 28, had been studying administration of justice at City College of San Francisco in hopes of becoming a youth probation officer.
Days after the shooting, police said Nieto had pointed his Taser at officers when they approached. At a March 26 town hall meeting convened shortly after the incident, Police Chief Greg Suhr told attendees that Nieto had “tracked” officers with his Taser, emitting a red laser.
“When the officers asked him to show his hands, he drew the Taser from the holster. And these particular Tasers, as soon as they’re drawn, they emit a dot. A red dot,” Suhr said, adding that Nieto had verbally challenged officers when they asked him to drop his weapon. “When the officers saw the laser sight on them, tracking, they believed it to be a firearm, and they fired at Mr. Nieto.”
Yet attorney Adante Pointer, of Burris’s law office, told the Bay Guardian that a person claiming to be an eyewitness to the shooting has come forward with a different account. The witness, whose identity Pointer did not disclose, said he never saw Nieto draw his Taser and did not hear any verbal exchange prior to bullets being fired.
“To suggest that he’d engaged in the most ridiculous outrageous conduct, of pointing a … Taser at the police when they had guns drawn, is insulting,” Burris said at the rally.
The version of events included in the complaint, which Pointer said was based in part on witness accounts, differs greatly from the SFPD account.
“An SFPD patrol car entered the park and drove up a fire trail before stopping approximately 75 to 100 feet away from Mr. Nieto who at that time was casually walking down the jogging trail to the park’s entrance,” Burris’ complaint states. “Two officers emerged from the patrol car and immediately took cover using their car for protection. Several other officers had also gathered on the jogging path, appeared to be carrying rifle-type guns and were positioned behind Mr. Nieto. One of the officers behind the patrol car called out and ordered Mr. Nieto to ‘stop.’ Within seconds a quick volley of bullets were fired at Mr. Nieto. No additional orders or any other verbal communication was heard between the first officer yelling ‘stop’ and the initial volley of gunfire that rang out.”
SFPD spokesperson Albie Esparza told us the department was unable comment on the matter because “anytime there’s a lawsuit, we cease to speak to anybody about that.”
Adriana Camarena, an author and Mission District resident who helped organize the rally, decried the lack of transparency surrounding the Nieto case in comments delivered outside the Federal Building.
“For five months, city officials have kept sealed all records that could explain what happened on March 21 2014,” Camarena charged. “For five months, SFPD, the Police Commission, the District Attorney’s Office, the Medical Examiner’s Office, and the mayor have maintained in secrecy the names of the four officers who killed Alex Nieto, the original 911 calls, eyewitness reports, the number of bullets fired, and the autopsy report. For five months, the Nieto family has been kept in the dark about the facts that could ease some of their trauma about what happened the day that police killed their son.”
Mike Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson on Aug. 9. On Aug. 11, following angry demonstrations, police said they would release the name of the officer who shot Brown — but declined to do so Aug. 12, citing fears over the officer’s safety and threats communicated via social media. Yet on Aug. 15, Officer Darren Wilson was identified by officials as the person who shot Brown.
In San Francisco, the names of the four officers who shot Nieto have not been released. Esparza told the Guardian that this was because “there’s specified credible threats against the officers’ lives,” citing a Supreme Court ruling determining that law enforcement agencies can withhold this information under such circumstances.
In addition to the federal civil complaint, friends and supporters of Nieto delivered a petition with almost 1,000 signatures to the U.S. Department of Justice, calling for a federal investigation into the shooting.
Multiple investigations are underway at the local level, but have been stalled due to one missing piece: an autopsy report to be issued by the San Francisco Medical Examiner. Despite the delay in releasing the formal autopsy results, “We did see the body and we did take photographs of it,” Burris noted, referring to his office’s review of the body after it was released to Nieto’s family for burial. Based on that review, Burris said attorneys determined that Nieto had been shot by police more than 10 times.
We placed multiple phone calls to the offices of the Medical Examiner and the District Attorney seeking details about the status of the investigation and to ask about the delay, but received no response.
However Bill Barnes, a spokesperson for the City Administrator’s Office, which the Medical Examiner’s Office reports to, told us the timing of the report is consistent with that of other complex homicide investigations. Barnes added that the Medical Examiner’s Office is waiting on the results of a second toxicology report. The initial results were inconclusive, he said, so another round of testing was initiated.
But that explanation does little to quell the anger of activists who say the SFPD is merely seeking to cover up an unjustified shooting. Pointer said he could see no reason for information being withheld for five months.
“There’s no reason as to why the information that this family deserves as to how their son — our brother, our friend, our leader, our organizer — met his death,” he said at the rally. “There’s just no reason why that story hasn’t been told. If you, the police department, had been justified, why not be transparent? Why not open up your files and let us inspect it so that we can see that what you’re saying is the truth?”