Activists Say Police Tampered with Evidence in Mission District Shooting

Father Richard Smith speaking at the press conference in City Hall on Wednesday, July 6, 2016. Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.Father Richard Smith speaking at the press conference in City Hall on Wednesday, July 6, 2016. Photo by Joe Rivano Barros.

Police officers tampered with evidence by ordering the removal of the body of police shooting victim Amilcar Perez Lopez before it could be properly investigated by city officials, alleges a group of Mission District activists who addressed the Police Commission on Wednesday night.

Father Richard Smith, a vicar at the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in the Mission District, held a press conference on the fatal police shooting of Amilcar Perez Lopez moments before a commission hearing.

According to Smith, the supervising officer on the scene had ordered the Medical Examiner to remove the body before the arrival of District Attorney investigators, which violates protocol.

Smith and other Mission activists have been pressuring District Attorney George Gascon to bring criminal charges against the officers involved, and said Gascon told them of the protocol breach to explain why the charging decision, hotly anticipated since April, had been delayed.

“We strongly suspect there was also a cover-up,” said Smith to some 20 supporters awaiting the commission hearing at City Hall.

Smith also said the District Attorney had informed him that Gascon’s office had not been notified immediately of the shooting because officers had reached out to his office after-hours, when nobody was on staff to answer.

“They were not notified,” Smith said. “They learned about it on the late evening news.”

A spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on an ongoing investigation.

The events after the shooting constituted a serious breach of protocol, Smith said, and the priest asked the Police Commission on Wednesday to investigate the matter and punish those responsible.

The allegations come on the heels of a Civil Grand Jury report that skewered the police department, commission, and city leaders over a lack of transparency in the investigation of officer-involved shootings. The Civil Grand Jury also found that investigations overall take too long.

“The citizens of San Francisco are not provided enough information to determine whether the current OIS investigation process works properly or whether the results of these investigations are fair and just,” the report said.

“This is at best gross negligence and at worst a cover-up,” Smith told commissioners, asking them to take disciplinary action against the supervising officer. Both officers involved in the shooting have been returned to their posts.

“In light of new revelations…we insist and demand that the commission take immediate action to discipline the officers,” said Mark Scandrette, who lived near Perez Lopez and has been a Mission District resident for 18 years.

At the press conference before the hearing, Scandrette said he was at home when the shooting took place and recalled it vividly.

“I remember sitting in my living room with my children, and hearing the six shots,” he said.

Perez Lopez was a 21-year-old undocumented Guatemalan immigrant who was shot and killed by two plainclothes police officers — Craig Tiffe and Eric Reboli — near 24th and Folsom streets at 9:45 p.m. on February 26, 2015.

Accounts of the shooting vary between the police and eyewitnesses, who have spoken with the District Attorney’s Office about their version of events.

Police say Perez Lopez was armed with a 13-inch knife and was chasing a man down the street when he was stopped by two officers. Perez Lopez tried to slash the officers with the knife, then-police chief Greg Suhr said after the shooting, causing the officers to open fire.

But according to the two eyewitnesses, Perez Lopez had dropped the knife when he was shot. Perez Lopez was sitting on his stoop on Folsom Street when a cyclist stole his phone and rode down the street, the witnesses said. He then gave chase with the knife but was grabbed by one of the plainclothes officers from behind, the witnesses said.

Perez Lopez wriggled away from the officer and ran into the street, they said, where he dropped his knife. It was after they heard a clank from the knife falling that police opened fire, they said.

Both witnesses spoke to Mission Local shortly after the incident but did not go to the District Attorney’s Office until late last year, fearing reprisal because they too are undocumented.

Autopsies released months after the shooting showed that Perez Lopez sustained six shots from behind — four in the back, one to the back of the right arm, and one to the head. After learning of the details in the autopsy, Suhr told the press that Perez Lopez had been turning around just as officers opened fire, sustaining the six shots to the back.

Those differing accounts have instilled distrust within advocates for Perez Lopez, who say the then-police chief changed his story to fit the evidence. The placement of the body is critical, activists said, because it shows how Perez-Lopez was moving relative to the officers who shot him. 

“You can’t blame us if we’re a little suspicious of removing the body,” said Smith. “Why did they do that?”

Still, Smith said the District Attorney had “all the evidence needed” to proceed with charges against the officers given the autopsy results.

Advocates for Perez Lopez have been gathering every Wednesday in front of the Mission District police station on Valencia Street for months, holding silent vigils urging Gascon to press charges against the officers involved.

In late April, Gascon told Smith that a decision on the charges could be as close as a week away, Smith said then, giving supporters some hope. Those charges never came, and Smith and others have continued their weekly vigils since then, moving them to the Police Commission recently.

On Wednesday, Smith told supporters that Gascon had again texted him that he was “very close” to a decision on charges.

Those gathered scoffed at the idea.

“What is he close too?” said one supporter.

“He said that a month ago,” said another.

Smith agreed it was frustrating, and said Gascon was “preparing a timeline” to release the reports on Perez Lopez. But he did not know why it has taken more than a year since the shooting, and was particularly exasperated about the last few months.

“I could drive myself crazy — and have — trying to think what’s going on in his plan,” Smith said of Gascon.

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