Police told an angry crowd of activists and community members that the knife-wielding suspect plainclothes officers shot and killed Thursday night slashed at an officer before being shot six times.
The explanation was met with shouts of dismay and disbelief.
Before the meeting, about 40 activists and community members gathered outside Cesar Chavez Elementary School to condemn the killing ofAmilcar Perez-López and announce their plans to push for further investigation and justice. Frank Lara, a teacher at Buena Vista Horace Mann and an organizer with the ANSWER coalition, as well as several activists who addressed a small gathering outside the school, dismissed the statements police would make ahead of time and offered an alternative narrative to the one put forward by police.
“We know the police tactic, the police tactic is to immediately blame the victim,” Lara said. “This has to be placed within the context of a national trend.”
Once inside, activists attending the meeting started sporadic chants and shouted out criticisms to police officers, officials, and panelists gathered at the front of the auditorium. Chief Greg Suhr addressed them, interrupted occasionally by their shouting, to recount the police’s version of the sequence of events on Thursday at 9:45 p.m. He said Perez-López had brandished the knife at officers, and when he ran at them again, one officer shot him five times and another shot once.
Suhr said the officers then called an ambulance, which arrived within minutes but was still too late to transport him to the hospital. He also said that police were able to track down Perez-López’s girlfriend using a cell phone they found in his pocket.
Police and neighbor accounts are almost completely at odds with one another. The cell phone in question, neighbors said, was at the root of the dispute between Perez-López and the cyclist he pursued the night he was killed. Friends and neighbors said the cyclist had asked to borrow the phone, then tried to steal it, which resulted in a heated argument. When Perez-López pursued the cyclist down the street, neighbors said, it was to retrieve his property.
The police account indicates that Perez-López may have been trying to steal the cyclist’s bicycle – after the man refused to sell it. According to this version, Perez-López followed the cyclist down the street, threatening him with a knife.
Outrage dominated the question and public comment time. Commenters wanted to know why police shoot to kill instead of using tasers or shooting to disable a suspect. Suhr said his department is not allowed to carry tasers, and that knives and guns are considered deadly weapons that would not be met with non-lethals like tasers.
A young boy, Diego, stood on top of a table to shout into a microphone.”What’s up with you guys?” he demanded. “You’re supposed to protect the people!”
“As a chief, you have to tell your people to behave like human beings, not like soldiers,” echoed Jorge Cal, who lives close to where the shooting took place and watched the aftermath from his window.
Cal and others said they saw the cyclist being handcuffed, and wanted to know why this was the case if he had been the victim. Mission Station Captain Daniel Perea said the man was released from his handcuffs after about six minutes. Suhr told reporters after the town hall that the cyclist, though in this case considered the victim by police, was handcuffed as a precaution by officers arriving on the scene who weren’t immediately sure how he was involved in the altercation with the knife.
But Suhr and other panelists found their audience unpersuaded. Commenter after commenter criticized police behavior in the Perez-López case and in others.
Angela Naggie, the mother of Oshaine Evans, an Oakland man killed in San Francisco late last year, took the microphone several times to voice her frustration.
“You promised me you were going to take care of me and you haven’t,” Naggie said. Later, when the room had half emptied of its audience, she addressed Suhr again. “I want to see how long you are going to sit here,” she said. “I’m so happy they cornered you here tonight.”
“If it were not officers acting under the color of law that were the killers this…wouldn’t be happening in a school, it would be happening in a courtroom,” said Jeremy Miller.
A man who said he had employed Perez-López said he found it strange that a hardworking person with steady employment and “money in the bank” would make an attempt to rob someone of their bicycle.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense, that he’s 15 feet away from his house, stealing a bike,” agreed Dawn Noelle after the meeting. “It does feel like there’s not a full forthcoming.”
A few voices defended the police, telling incensed activists that police did more good than harm.
“I don’t see them as murderers,” insisted Buck Bagot, contrary to the chants and yells of others at the meeting. Later, he said he acknowledged that “the police aren’t perfect,” but also cited his experiences with effective police intervention in drug dealing that had gotten out of control in Bernal Heights public housing communities in the 1980s. “What are you going to do if…there are violent people dealing drugs, and shooting guns? You should be able to call the police whatever your ethnicity,” Bagot said.
But if there was one thing most of those attending could agree on, it was a call for an independent investigation of the shooting, though who should conduct it was unclear.
Supervisor David Campos, first offering his condolences to Perez-Lopez’s family, said that the events surrounding his death are still unclear, and joined others in calling for a “full, in-depth investigation.”
“I want the facts to come out,” Campos said.
In the meantime, the police department, the District Attorney, and if warranted, the Office of Citizen Complaints, will conduct their own investigations.
Suhr reminded those attending last night’s meeting that the process of investigation is just beginning, and assured his listeners that the names of the officers involved would be released by close of business Friday.
Even before the meeting started, however, David Santos, an activist with the Stop Mass Incarceration Network, called the town hall “illegitimate” and said it was designed to “shut people up and keep people out of the streets.”
Organizers and Perez-López’s neighbors said they have reached out to Arnoldo Castillas, the attorney who also represented the family of 13-year-old police shooting victim Andy Lopez, to take on their case. Bill Simpich, one of Lopez Perez’s neighbors and also a civil rights attorney, said he and other neighbors will be pushing for an autopsy report before the body is returned to Guatemala.
Simpich also said that Perez-López and his roommates were facing eviction – a roommate confirmed the residents are expected to leave by March and that some had taken a buyout.