The District Attorney’s Office is on the verge of deciding whether to bring criminal charges against two officers who shot and killed 21-year-old Amilcar Perez-Lopez down the block from his Mission District home in February 2015, according to Father Richard Smith, one of the lead advocates for Perez-Lopez.
That comes after two eyewitnesses to the shooting — both roommates of Perez-Lopez at the time of his death — have gone on the record with the District Attorney’s Office to say that Perez-Lopez was running away from officers and had dropped a knife in his hand when he was shot six times from the back.
“The witnesses all say that a did not have his knife out,” said Bill Simpich, one of the lawyers representing Perez-Lopez for a civil case he hopes to bring to federal court next March.
Both witnesses spoke to Mission Local anonymously a year ago contradicting what police said, but they gave their version to investigators with the District Attorney’s Office for the first time on December 16, Smith said. They met with investigators in the library of his church — St. John’s the Evangelist — and recounted that evening last year.
“[The district attorney] could not move forward with any kind of action or any kind of case unless he talked to the eyewitnesses,” said Smith. “Up to that point the only testimony he had to go on was what the police officers were saying. He needed to get the eyewitnesses.”
Perez-Lopez was an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala who lived on Folsom Street between 25th and 26th streets and was shot by two plainclothes police officers near 9:45 p.m. on February 26.
Police Chief Greg Suhr held a townhall meeting after the shooting and said then that Perez-Lopez was armed with a knife and had chased a man down the street to steal his bicycle when the two officers confronted him.
Perez-Lopez then brandished a 13-inch-long carving knife and ran at the two officers, according to Suhr, slashing at them before they opened fire.
But the two eyewitnesses have consistently contradicted the police account. Because both are undocumented they feared reprisal from police officers and worried about their immigration status, they said a year ago. Smith said the district attorney was now in the process of obtaining special visas for the pair that would put them on the path towards permanent residency.
Simpich, the lawyer for the Perez-Lopez family, said the witnesses would not speak with the press because that could lead them to contradict any testimony they give in court — though he added that he is “convinced they’re going to tell the same story.”
Both witnesses said last year that Perez-Lopez was shot after he had dropped his knife. They said Perez-Lopez had initially chased a bicyclist with a knife after the bicyclist stole his phone. Lawyers later said the bicyclist had attempted to enter Perez-Lopez’s home.
While running after the cyclist, Perez-Lopez was grabbed by one of the plainclothes officers from behind. He did not realize they were police officers because they were not in uniform, the witnesses said, though police told the Chronicle that the pair wore badges on the outside of their clothing.
Perez-Lopez then tried to squirm away from the officers and ran into the middle of the street, where the witnesses heard a clank as Perez-Lopez dropped his knife, the witnesses said.
It was after Perez-Lopez dropped his knife that both officers opened fire, they said.
Simpich said the bicyclist also said that Perez-Lopez was unarmed and running from the cops when shot. The police have previously said the bicyclist thanked them for stopping Perez-Lopez, but Simpich said the cyclist was “as horrified” at the police action as Perez-Lopez’s roommates.
Suhr has tweaked the official account of the incident twice in response to an independent autopsy showing the six bullets entered Perez-Lopez’s body from the back. The official autopsy from the Medical Examiner’s Office also stated Perez-Lopez was shot in the back.
In the account given at the town hall meeting immediately following the shooting, Suhr said Perez-Lopez ran towards officers and slashed at them with a knife.
In June, Suhr told the Chronicle that Perez-Lopez had just run towards officers but then turned to attack someone else behind him when officers opened fire, hitting him in the back.
The decision on the charges is expected in the first week of May, Smith said. He has been in communication with District Attorney George Gascon over the shooting for months and said Gascon told him in a phone call that the Perez-Lopez case “has all the marks of a bad shooting.”
The District Attorney’s Office did not return multiple requests for comment.
The case of Perez-Lopez is one of four police shooting cases in San Francisco in the last two years. It joins those of Alex Nieto, who was shot and killed by police at Bernal Heights Park in 2014, and Mario Woods, who was shot and killed in December last year in the Bayview-Hunter’s Point.
Most recently, the police shooting of Luis Gongora, a homeless man in the Mission District, sparked protests and an on-going hunger strike outside of the Mission police station demanding the firing of Suhr.