In a room filled with more than 200 people, Chief of Police Greg Suhr said that police officers who shot and killed 28-year-old Alejandro Nieto Friday night on Bernal Hill thought the victim was pointing a hand gun at them. It was only after Nieto was down that they discovered the young man was carrying a taser.
“When officers saw the laser sight, they believed it to be a firearm,” said Suhr who had to pause throughout his brief presentation as shouts of “pig,” “liar,” and “murderers,” echoed through the room at Flynn Elementary School.
To illustrate the similarities between the two, Suhr provided a side-by-side photo comparison of a traditional handgun and the taser Nieto carried in a holster. “When officers asked him to show his hands, he drew his taser from the holster,” Suhr said.
Officers, he said, were responding to a 911 call that a man was on Bernal Hill with a gun. When they arrived they found Nieto sitting on the hill eating chips with his hand on a holster. Because Nieto was about 75 feet away and uphill with the sun setting behind him, Suhr said the officers arriving on scene were unable to tell the difference between a taser and regular gun.
“The officers fired in defense of their own lives,” Suhr said. Police have yet to reveal the names of the officers involved in the shooting but said they were currently on leave.
How many times police fired is unclear. While some friends reported hearing 12-16 rounds—that number was cited frequently throughout the night—Suhr said he could not confirm that detail until the release of the Medical Examiner’s report. He did say to the press that four officer’s guns were discharged.
To the family, friends and neighbors of Nieto, many longtime Mission residents and community activists, Suhr’s description of events failed to lessen the horror of Nieto’s death or diminish the raw anger felt toward the San Francisco Police Department. For many, the story hardly seemed credible.
“There is no way I can believe Alex pointed the taser at them,” said Benjamin Bac Sierra an instructor at City College and friend of Nieto. Bac Sierra said he believed that Nieto knew better given that he was a trained security guard and studying to be a parole officer. “This is totally unsatisfactory…there’s a gigantic rationalization happening here that I don’t buy.”
In addition to studying criminal justice at City College, Nieto was a practicing Buddhist and many that knew him described him as a pacifist, saying allegations that he was prone to violence and mentally unstable are overblown. Furthermore, while former friend Arthur X. Vega had taken out a restraining order against Nieto. Nieto had also taken out a restraining order against Vega.
“Alex was one of the greatest sweethearts I knew,” said one friend.
After Suhr’s brief presentation, nearly four hours of public comment revealed a community in the throws of incredible heartache, confusion, suspicion, and rage.
Many called for an independent investigation. The department has begun its own internal review. The Office of Citizen Complaints, a civilian-run agency that investigates police incidents, has yet to begin an investigation waiting for a formal complaint that will surely come following Tuesday’s hearing.
Among those calling for independent investigation was Supervisor David Campos. “We have a choice to make, do we focus on anger or get something positive…we do need an independent, full investigation of the Police Department.”
Nieto’s family has hired attorneys from the Law Offices of John Burris, the same firm that represented the mother of shooting victim Oscar Grant, and is investigating the incident further. At Tuesday’s hearings, representatives were handing out fliers seeking potential witnesses of the Nieto shooting.
Others wanted much more than just an investigation. Representatives from activists groups like Our Mission, No Eviction and ANSWER Coalition said there will be a protest and rally Saturday at 2 p.m. starting at the Mission Culture Center, though details have yet to be confirmed. Additionally, some speakers said they planned on providing additional comments at the Police Commission meeting Wednesday night at the Tenderloin District office.
“This was murder that just happened,” said Gloria La Riva a representative of the ANSWER Coalition. “We’re tired of it and we’re going to fight back.”
Several speakers directed their anger at Suhr and the several uniformed officers that stood stoically around the room, citing other recent examples of conflict between police officers and the community, such as a November incident at Valencia Gardens in which police allegedly roughed up a young man on a bike.
“There was a time we were fearful of gangs, now we’re fearful of the police,” said Bianca Gutiérrez a Mission resident who brought her young son Sebastian to speak as well.
For those in the room, Nieto’s shooting seemed to also reflect larger themes of a changing city. The race and class dimension of young, Latino male killed in a gentrifying neighborhood ran throughout many of the comments. Many expressed a growing sense that neighborhoods like Bernal Heights and the Mission, once welcoming to working class communities of color, are becoming increasingly alienating and hostile.
“Let’s talk about these calls [to the police], since we’ve started to be gentrified again I’m getting called on to the police,” said Roberto Hernandez a longtime community activists who explained that with new neighbors his usually acceptable house parties have garnered surprising new complaints. “These calls are reminders that there are new people here that love our culture in the Mission…but they can’t deal with the people that are already here.”
Throughout the evening, Alejandro’s father Refugio sat in the front row responding with a small head nod to frequent words of condolences for his deceased son, including one from Suhr himself who said apologized on behalf of the San Francisco Police Department.
In an exchange with Campos, Nieto explained how he was informed of his son’s death a day after the shooting took place and that officer interrogated before delivering the news.
“On behalf of city, that is really shameful,” said Campos to Nieto.
In one of the only quiet moments of the evening, one of Nieto’s fellow Buddhist practioners called for a moment of silent prayer. For just a few seconds, the entire room fell into a hush.