Two eyewitnesses to a police shooting told Mission Local they feared countering the official version of events because of their undocumented status.
Their version of events directly contradicts statements by police about the shooting of 21-year-old Amilcar Pérez López on Feb. 26 at 9:45 p.m.
Police say Pérez López had been trying to steal someone’s bike and then lunged – with a knife in his hand – at plainclothes officers before the officers opened fire. The eyewitnesses said that Pérez López was chasing someone on a bicycle who had stolen his cellphone. Moreover, they said, he dropped the knife he had in his hand before police opened fire.
“I am drowning. I want to say everything I know, but I am scared,” one of them said.
“If later, we make a statement against [the police version], what will become of us?” asked the other. “That’s why we haven’t spoken up. We are overwhelmed, stressed out, we can’t sleep.”
The two men have asked that their names be withheld. They are in the process of talking to lawyers.
One of the witnesses in the case, neighbors said, almost lost his job because of his relation to the incident — his employer used his absence while he was being questioned by a lawyer as grounds to fire him, but relented the next day and allowed him to return.
Police say they have spoken with one of Pérez López’ four roommates and several other witnesses, but it is unclear if any of those witnesses actually saw the shooting. Neighbors said there may be others afraid to come forward due to their undocumented status.
An immigration lawyer told Mission Local that witnesses who have been hesitant to speak with police because of their immigration status may qualify for a U-Visa if they cooperate with law enforcement. The two eyewitnesses to the shooting were unaware of any possible protection.
In response to the differing versions of events, police said they encourage more witnesses to come forward and share what they saw.
“As with any investigation, witness accounts will vary since witnesses may only see one portion of the whole incident,” a police spokesperson said. “If any witnesses haven’t spoken to police about what they saw, we encourage them to come forward as their accounts are important to the investigation.”
It’s unclear when the investigations underway by the police department and the District Attorney’s office will conclude. At present, however, there are two sharply different narratives of what happened in the three minutes and 39 seconds between the time police got a call and when a caller heard the shots fired at Pérez López .
What Police Say Happened
On February 26th at about 9:21 p.m. the police department received a call about a person with a knife near 24th and Folsom streets.
Two plainclothes officers, Eric Reboli and Craig Tiffe, were the closest officers to the scene and arrived at 9:46 p.m. The caller reported seeing two individuals, both about 5’5” tall, wearing beanies, one holding a knife.
The officers reported that they approached the suspect with the knife, one from behind and one from the side. They told him to drop the knife. He did not comply.
Officers said the suspect then took a swipe at one of them with the knife, and lunged at the officers with the knife. One officer discharged his weapon five times, the other once. They called an ambulance immediately, and handcuffed the other individual to ensure he was not a threat.
Six minutes later, police decided the handcuffed man was not a threat and released him. He thanked the officers for saving his life, police said.
Police Chief Greg Suhr said police used a cell phone found in the dead suspect’s pockets to contact his girlfriend and roommate. They recovered a 13-inch-long kitchen knife from the scene.
Here is an excerpt from Suhr’s comments to the public at the police town hall meeting following the shooting, detailing the police version of events:
What Neighbors and Two Eyewitnesses Say Happened
A little more than an hour before the incident, his co-worker dropped Pérez López off at home. The 21-year-old was sitting on his steps on Folsom near the corner of 24th street when a known local transient, often seen on a bicycle, attempted to steal Pérez López’ cell phone.
The argument got heated, Pérez López went inside to retrieve a kitchen knife, threatened the cyclist with it and chased him down the street in an attempt to get his phone back.
One of Pérez López roommates said he saw the plainclothes officers grab Pérez López from behind, prompting him to squirm away and face the officers. He dropped the knife when commanded to do so, the witness said.
Other neighbors could not testify whether Pérez López was still holding the knife when he was shot as they did not witness the actual shooting. They said, however, that he spoke very limited English and probably didn’t realize he was facing law enforcement officers or that the officers were ordering him to drop his weapon.
Yet another neighbor, who lives in a room overlooking the incident, heard loud shouting in English followed almost immediately by six shots – insufficient time, she said, for anyone to react to an order, let alone someone who doesn’t understand the language.
The CAD printout of the call to police shows that the first officers arrive at 9:46:16. According to the report, one minute and 33 seconds elapsed between the officers’ arrival and a 911 caller on the line reporting the shots.
Neighbors and police reports agree that the cyclist was subdued and then handcuffed. A resident on Folsom closer to 25th street said he looked outside his window less than ten seconds after the shots were fired and saw officers pointing a gun at someone standing where witnesses and police place the cyclist. That resident heard the officer tell him to get on the ground, and then saw the man comply.
Neighbors also said a video surfaced that begins three minutes after the shooting and shows the cyclist being rolled back and forth on the ground by officers, ostensibly being searched for weapons. Police said at the town hall meeting that the man was only in cuffs for about six minutes as a precaution because responding officers were not sure at first how each of the men was involved in the altercation.
Police and neighbor descriptions of the approximate location of all parties at the time of the shooting also more or less align.
Events leading up to the incident: Police, citing the unnamed cyclist, said the cyclist had refused to sell his bicycle to Pérez López. He was walking down Folsom when he looked behind him to see Pérez López coming after him with a knife raised overhead. He ran away and took shelter on the street side of a parked car before police arrived.
Neighbors said the cyclist – one said he was known as El Cuervo – had been bullying Pérez López, and was one of several people who regularly gathered in front of the house (where Pérez López lived) to drink. They say the cyclist had tried to steal Pérez López’ cell phone. When an altercation ensued, Pérez López went inside the house to get a kitchen knife. When he returned wielding the knife, the cyclist apparently remarked sarcastically, “Oh, now I’ll respect you.”
Confrontation with police: In his comments at the town hall meeting, Suhr said Pérez López first had been hovering over a parked car with his hands out of view. When an officer tried to reposition him so they could see his hands, Pérez López swiped at the officer with the knife. With a distance of about five feet between them, Perez Lopez then charged at the officers with the knife, Suhr said.
A roommate said Pérez López had been approached by officers from behind, then squirmed away. When he faced them, he dropped the knife before he was shot, a witness said.
The identity of the cyclist has not been released, and Mission Local has not been able to speak with him. A resident at Pérez López’ house said he was a familiar transient and has been seen often in front of the house, drinking with acquaintances. It’s unclear whether or not he has been giving statements to police and lawyers.
It’s also unclear what happened with Pérez López’ cell phone. His roommates say the cyclist was attempting to steal it, but police say they found it on his person and used it to contact a former girlfriend and a roommate. The roommate said that when police called, the ID said restricted , indicating the call was not coming from the phone of his friend, but it is possible police merely got his phone number from Pérez López’ phone. It is also possible Pérez López was able to retrieve it from the cyclist, or that it was never taken from him, but it does appear that was his only phone, and that he wasn’t supplied a work phone.
Neighbors and witnesses have reported being told not to share their statements with police or the press.
Arnoldo Casillas, the attorney who represented the family of police shooting victim Andy Lopez, is expected to be the family’s main legal counsel. Perez Lopez’ father is expected to travel to San Francisco, and is reportedly in the process of obtaining a visa.
Please excuse our inconsistencies in the use of Amilcar Pérez López’ / López Pérez’ name — those who knew him have referred to him with his name in different orders. We will work to clear up the confusion and remain consistent thereafter.
Thank you Mission Local for covering this story so thoroughly.