Activists marched to City Hall on Tuesday to protest the police department for its handling of a police shooting in February 2015 and said the breach of protocol in the crime scene investigation stoked their fears of a possible cover-up by the police.
“You can’t blame us for suspecting a cover-up here given the many falsehoods we’ve heard from SFPD, in this case from the beginning,” said Father Richard Smith, a vicar at St. John the Evangelist Church in the Mission District, who has been the principal advocate for police shooting victim Amilcar Perez Lopez.
Activists also demanded that the Police Commission investigate the breach of protocol, and that the district attorney file charges against the two officers involved and stop “stringing [advocates] along” with delays in the investigation.
“File the damn murder charges,” said Smith, saying the district attorney has enough evidence to charge the two officers who shot and killed the 21-year-old Guatemalan immigrant in the Mission District on February, 26, 2015.
Carrying banners reading “No more stolen lives,” the crowd of 50 chanted “No justice, no peace, no racist police” in a march around City Hall, after a press conference at the Hall of Justice blocks away.
The police have said that officers fired in self-defense when Perez Lopez lunged at them with a knife and that Perez Lopez then turned away, but two eyewitnesses say the officers fired at Perez Lopez when he was running from them and after he had dropped his knife.
Perez Lopez was also shot six times from behind, according to two separate autopsies, and Smith said the forensic evidence combined with witness testimony should lead to district attorney to file charges.
Activists said they were told months ago that a decision on such charges was only a week away, but so far, no charges have been filed. The district attorney has not said when his investigation will be completed.
Smith and others said earlier this month that District Attorney George Gascón had been delayed in his investigation by police handling of the crime scene following the shooting. Officers on site failed to notify the district attorney of the shooting and moved Perez Lopez’s body before investigators from his office had arrived, Smith said.
“Breaking crime scene protocols can derail an investigation and let killer cops go uncharged,” Smith said on Tuesday. “The physical body is the bulk of the physical evidence. Take away the body and a complete criminal investigation of a crime scene becomes so much more difficult.”
On Tuesday, Father Smith also released text messages he received from the district attorney that explicitly state the district attorney’s belief that the handling of the crime scene delayed his investigation into the shooting.
“I believe early assertions made by the chief, removal of the deceased prior to our arrival, and the failure to notify us all played a role in making our work much more difficult and in delaying outcomes,” read one of the messages written by the district attorney to Smith.
But in a subsequent text sent to Smith and the police chief, Gascon seemed to walk back his claims, writing that it was “unclear” whether the “failures to follow protocol” had “impacted our ability to get to the truth.”
“We just don’t know what we don’t know,” read the message allegedly written by Gascon and released by Smith.
The District Attorney’s Office has said that “mistakes were made” but did not say the Police Department’s actions had impacted their investigation. They did not respond to requests for comment on the text messages.
At Tuesdays press conference outside the Hall of Justice at City Hall, Smith and other supporters condemned what they — and the District Attorney’s Office — called a “longstanding problem” of police mishandling crime scenes.
“Proper procedure has not been followed,” said Reverend J.D. Benson, a Unitarian minister. Benson said clergy city-wide were concerned about police shootings, and that she found the allegations of broken protocol particularly troubling. “All of these elements add to the doubt and mistrust in our communities.”
After the 45-minute press conference, activists marched to City Hall and joined another press conference held there for Mario Woods, another police shooting victim killed in the Bayview in December 2015. His death helped galvanize activists against the then-police chief, Greg Suhr, who was later forced to resign.
“I know no one will be held accountable, so what are you trying to tell us as a people?” said Gwendolyn Woods, the victim’s mother. “All we’re trying to say is that our lives matter, our lives do matter.”
It was a reunion of sorts for the families of police shooting victims. The brother and cousin of Luis Gongora Pat, who was shot and killed in the Mission District in April this year, were there alongside the parents of Alex Nieto, shot and killed in Bernal Heights Park in March 2014.
The mother of Kenneth Harding Jr., shot and killed in July 2011, spoke at the conference, just after Woods. The family of Jessica Williams, the most recent police shooting victim whose death was the catalyst for Suhr’s resignation, was not present, but speakers mentioned her alongside the other deceased.
Eventually, Father Smith spoke again, again calling for the filing of charges against the officers in the Perez Lopez shooting and for the police to “stop violating crime scenes.” He said that despite the months-long wait, he and others would continue to pressure the district attorney to make a decision soon.
“We’re still waiting and watching for the DA to do the right thing,” he said.