Lawyer Arnoldo Casillas speaks with Amilcar Pérez-López's parents, Margarita and Juan, who called in from Guatemala. Photo by J.J. Barrow

One year after police officers shot and killed Amilcar Perez Lopez, who they say was threatening them with a knife, activists are hoping to keep advocacy on his family’s behalf going strong.

With public outcry mounting after the shooting of Mario Woods, organizers said they are seeing renewed vigor in pushing for criminal charges against the officers who shot Perez Lopez.

On February 26, 2015, officers Craig Tiffe and Eric Reboli responded to 24th and Folsom streets, where a caller had reported a person with a knife. They found Perez Lopez in an altercation with a cyclist, Abraham Perez.

What happened next is unclear, and accounts vary dramatically. Police say Perez Lopez brandished a knife and then lunged at the officers.  An account given later by Chief Greg Suhr indicated that Perez Lopez had actually threatened Perez, the cyclist, with a knife rather than an officer.

Witness accounts indicate Perez Lopez had been approached from behind by plainclothes officers, wriggled out of their grasp and then – before turning to run away – dropped his knife at the officers’ commands.

Arnoldo Casillas, a lawyer representing Perez Lopez’s family in a civil suit against the city and Suhr, presented the results of a private autopsy in April 2015 that show Perez Lopez had been shot in the back, casting serious doubts on the police version of the story. The San Francisco Medical Examiner’s autopsy confirmed that Perez Lopez was shot in the back.

The autopsy results are a major facet of activists’ stance that the shooting was unjustified.

“I think once the Mario Woods thing was seen and people saw the video all of a sudden they realized that, first of all, the cops are capable of killing people…and secondly, they’re also capable of covering up,” said Father Richard Smith, a vicar at the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist.

“From the Mario Woods video…people realized, wow, maybe that’s what happened with Amilcar, so they kind of went back to revisit it.”

The autopsy certainly complicates the police narrative of what happened, but may not indicate any wrongdoing on the part of the officers. Ron Martinelli, a forensic police practices expert and an expert witness who often examines officer-involved shootings, said it is not necessarily suspect that officers shot Perez Lopez in the back, or failed to give him time to respond to a command to drop the knife, depending on the circumstances.

“It takes about 58 hundredths of a second to experience a life threat…The next thing is, it takes about 56 hundredths of a second for the human being to make a decision of how they’re going to respond to that life threat,” Martinelli said. “Do you know how fast a human being can turn around? .25 seconds. So here’s the conundrum: A police officer could be threatened by a person with a knife… yell at him to drop the knife, and when he doesn’t see the guy immediately drop the knife and the person has already started to turn and run, if the officer only takes 33 hundredths of a second, and that guy’s already turned around… it struck him in the back.”

But the exact details, on which such an assessment depends, are nebulous. Since the autopsy results were revealed, the public has gotten no further clarity on what might have actually happened the night of Perez Lopez’s shooting or on the timing of the sequence of events. But it seems the District Attorney may have new information.

Advocates for Perez Lopez’s family report that District Attorney staff members have been able to extensively interview two of Perez Lopez’s former roommates. Immediately following the shooting, these roommates, both undocumented immigrants, gave statements to the press only under condition of anonymity. Casillas, the attorney representing Perez Lopez’s family, said he is trying to find some kind of protection for them, but as that they have not been afforded any special protections for their testimony. 

In mid December, following Woods’ death, SFPD categorized pointing a gun at someone as a use of force. On February 11, police commissioners considered changes to the police’s general order on use of force, and then passed them on to a group of stakeholders. The changes would establish policy to put the sanctity of human life first and foremost, employ de-escalation techniques where possible, and respond to force proportionally. The proposal, however, was also the chief’s attempt to grant select members of his department electric stun guns (or Tasers, after their biggest manufacturer).

Meanwhile, the federal Department of Justice has launched a review of San Francisco’s police department. Representatives from the department are holding meetings with the community to gauge its feelings toward law enforcement.

One meeting was held in the Bayview on Wednesday, and another is scheduled for the Mission on March 8 at 6 p.m. at Mission High School. But Smith does not have high hopes.

“It really became very very clear last night that that really is a sham,” he said. “They’re treating us like we’re one big therapy group.”

The civil case brought by Casillas is on hold while the District Attorney completes his investigation into the conduct of the officers.

“We’re kind of treading water until the work is done on the DA’s side whether there’s going to be criminal charges or not,” said Bill Simpich, an attorney who lives near where Perez Lopez was shot and is assisting in the case.

Keeping political momentum going has been challenging in a case whose emotional appeal pales in comparison to the other two most memorable police shootings in San Francisco – those of Alex Nieto and Mario Woods.

In Woods’ case, bystander video of the shooting was immediately widely circulated and drew passionate responses.

“It’s video! It’s so powerful. There’s just no comparison between a video case and a non-video case,” Simpich said.

Nieto, meanwhile, has a family present in the city around whom continued activism swirls, and a deeply rooted network of friends. Perez Lopez, Smith pointed out, had neither of these.

“He is not local, he’s not a homegrown boy, he doesn’t have a network of friends that go back years as do both Mario and Alex,” he said. “There’s not quite the same community around him of people who loved him and…feel his absence.”

What’s more, the young immigrant struggled to speak Spanish – his mother tongue was an indigenous Guatemalan language.

“It was harder for him to connect with people,” Smith said.

Nonetheless, both Simpich and Smith said interest in the case has increased since Woods’ death.

“I started getting approached by supervisors and just people sparking more interest. I started seeing Amilcar’s name being mentioned more frequently in public spaces and in the media,” Smith said.

On the anniversary of Perez Lopez’s death, organizers plan to meet, hold a vigil and march from the site of his shooting to Mission Police Station.

“This whole kind of area of law depends on how badly you want to do something,” Simpich said. “I think that the city is genuinely surprised by the power of the Black Lives Matter movement… It hasn’t gone away, it’s gotten stronger.”

This story has been updated to reflect new information about the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s autopsy report. It also stated that the undocumented eyewitnesses in the case had been granted a U-visa. Following an interview with attorney Arnoldo Casillas that indicated the contrary, this has been corrected.

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