A police officer involved in the fatal shooting of a mentally ill man at Stern Grove in October was also one of the officers who pulled the trigger on Alex Nieto in 2014, according to police.
After police released this information last week, organizers who work with at-risk youth came forward and told Mission Local that they had raised concerns of brutality and misconduct about the same officer after a 2009 incident.
“Imagine if someone would have listened to the kids who filled out the appropriate form and followed the process to report a bad apple,” said youth advocate Nancy Pili Hernandez, who helped to document testimonials of harassment from teens in the Excelsior and other neighborhoods against the officer.
Officer Nathan Chew was identified last week as one of two police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Nicolas McWherter this month. The shooting comes some seven months after he and three other officers were cleared of misconduct in a civil trial for the shooting of Nieto.
In Nieto’s case, Chew and the other officers testified in front of a jury in March that they shot at the 28-year-old man 59 times in Bernal Heights Park in March 2014. The officers said they feared for their lives when Nieto seemingly pointed a gun at them.
But Nieto was a licensed security guard, and what they had perceived as a gun was in actuality a taser. Nieto had fired the taser twice during the time the officers fired at him, evidence presented at the trial showed.
Chew, who has been with the police department for nine years, was one of two officers responding to that shooting as backup. During trial, Chew provided contradicting testimony as to whether Nieto was standing or on the ground when he arrived on scene, according to advocates for Nieto.
In the most recent shooting, Chew and another officer were reportedly off-duty and not wearing their mandated body cameras when they shot McWherter after he allegedly opened fire at another officer, striking him in the head.
Chew was assigned to patrol prior to the shooting, according to a spokesperson for the department, and remains off duty, as is protocol following an officer-involved shooting.
On hearing of Chew’s involvement in the recent police shooting near Stern Grove, youth advocates have stepped forward to detail their experiences with Chew. These experiences, they said, were reported at the time to the Police Commission and the Youth Commission.
According to Nina Parks, a former youth coordinator at the Excelsior Community Center, Chew was on foot patrol one day in early 2009 and barged into the center along with another officer. The pair was chasing a teen who had entered the center and whom they had sought out for questioning, said Parks.
“They were trying to intersect with one of our youth who had been standing outside of the center for most of the day – but when they chose to interact with him, he was inside the center,” said Parks, who witnessed the interaction, adding that it took place as youth were serving families through the center’s food pantry program.
Parks said that Chew and the other officer then “pulled guns on him” and violently subdued the teen and his girlfriend after chasing him into an intersection outside of the center.
“They pushed past me and my co-workers and a line of elders who had lined up [for the food pantry],” said Parks, adding that she and others tried to intervene when the officers chased the teen into a busy intersection in front the center at Mission Street and Excelsior Avenue, stopping traffic with some “eight police cars.”
“The kids’ baggy pants were down to his ankles, and his girlfriend was trying to pull up his pants,” remembered Parks. “When his girlfriend tried to do that, they tackled her onto her stomach.”
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Parks alleged that Chew body-slammed the boy and his girlfriend – both of whom she says were unarmed – shocking the youth workers and the bystanders, among them seniors and families. It is unclear if the couple was injured.
“This guy’s younger brother is running towards the police officers like, ‘Get the hell off my brother,’” said Parks.
Officer Carlos Manfredi, the police department’s public information officer, said that if Chew and the other officer responded to a call for service that involved suspicion of a gun, the officers would have acted within protocol by entering the community center with their guns drawn.
“If the call was that there is a person with a gun, it would not have been uncommon for the officer to respond with a gun,” said Manfredi. “Whether it’s a youth or an adult, officers have the right to protect themselves and the people around, and take safety precautions when there is a gun involved.”
Nikki Hatfield now heads Movements, an after school program that gives young people the tools to document issues in their communities and was formed as a direct result of that 2009 incident, which she said she witnessed. Hatfield was a teenager then and participating in the Excelsior Community Center’s youth programming. She said that the teen “definitely did not have a gun.”
Hatfield said she remembers the incident as somewhat of a “bad dream.”
“I was at pantry and we were handing out food to the community – I remember a sudden flash running by, I didn’t see the person,” said Hatfield. “But then I did see the officer coming in, and I remember [Nina Parks] running.”
Hatfield said the teenager was African American and a few years older than her – she also said that she saw police officers chasing the teen into the streets where he was then tackled.
Hatfield could not confirm that the officer who tackled the teen was Chew, but said that the incident was traumatizing for those who witnessed it.
“He’s in middle of street, outside of the center. It’s a huge intersection and all directions of traffic were stopped,” said Hatfield. “His pants were down. His girlfriend was trying to help him in some way, then she was grabbed too.”
Even then, Hatfield said she found it problematic that the officers refused dialogue with the youth workers and community center’s staff.
“I remember her saying ‘Work with me, he’s my youth,’” said Hatfield, referring to Parks. “And them being like ‘No, this something totally separate.’”
After the incident, Parks said that the youth coordinators filed a complaint against Chew with the Office of Citizen’s Complaints, but that “nothing ever came of it.”
Joyce Hicks, executive director of the that office, said that complaints against officers are confidential and only available as statistics.
Changing police and youth relations
Ailed Paningbatan-Swan, director of community engagement at the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center, oversaw the youth program and food pantry at the Excelsior Community Center in 2010 and said that while the police chase between Chew and the teen was the tipping point, relations between the Excelsior’s youth and officers’ had been tense for some time.
“They [the youth] were hanging out in front of the Excelsior Community Center, they would hang out before and post food pantry activities,” she said. “That’s when the police started harassing them and asking what they are doing out there.”
Paningbatan-Swan said that following the incident, the center changed its open-door policy – locking its doors permanently to prevent youth from congregating outside.
“That really led to the decline of some of the youth hanging out in front of our center,” she said. “Our youth felt stuck in the building. We didn’t want them to get harassed, so we needed to something about it.”
At a youth summit after the incident, many local youth stepped forward to share their experiences – often negative – with police, said Pili Hernandez, the youth advocate, who was a teacher at June Jordan High School in the Excelsior “at the time when [the youth coordinators] filed paperwork against Nathan Chew.”
“They wanted to explain how they felt they were unjustly targeted by Chew and how they felt that he was a threat to them and violent,” she said, adding that the teens also described Chew entering the center that day with his gun drawn.
Youth, including Hatfield, who became involved with Movements, also rallied for change at City Hall. They testified about their experiences with police in front of the police commission.
For some two years, youth workers such as Paningbatan-Swan and youth representatives met with members of the Youth Commission, Police Commission, police officials and city leaders to draft a new community policing general order, with specific components focusing on interactions with youth.
They were supported in their effort by Mission Supervisor David Campos’ office, whose Chief of Staff, Hillary Ronen, worked to involve other neighborhood groups in defining the terms of community policing based on community and youth needs.
Ronen said that Campos’ office was able to help pass an ordinance on community policing that led the police department to adapt a revision to general order on community policing in September 2011.
While some progress has been made – Paningbatan-Swan said that she now often gets calls from Ingleside police station before officers respond to calls involving youth in her community – many of the youth advocates involved in the approval process of the general order on community policing wonder how much of what they fought for is being implemented.
“The city doesn’t have a good record of being able to enforce the general order,” said Parks.
“If an officer like Chew has gotten several complaints, is involved in two different shootings and is never reprimanded, why would these young people feel the need to respect or follow the way this system runs?”