The two San Francisco police officers who shot and killed Amilcar Perez Lopez in February 2014 will not be charged with any crimes.
On Wednesday, District Attorney George Gascón’s announced his decision, which comes more than two years after two plainclothes police officers, Eric Reboli and Craig Tiffe, shot and killed the 21-year-old Guatemalan immigrant. In a report detailing the investigation, Gascón wrote that the evidence is insufficient to bring charges.
“We will never know exactly what happened in those split seconds…and to whom he posed a threat,” said Gascón, addressing reporters during a press conference held Wednesday afternoon. “For the officers to be charged for the shooting death of Mr. Perez Lopez, we would need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the officers did not act in self-defense or in the defense of others,” the District Attorney said.
The exoneration comes amid mounting community pressure to hold officers involved in shootings and incidents of police brutality accountable. For the past year, a group of community members led by Father Richard Smith of St. John’s Episcopal Church have held weekly vigils outside of Mission Police Station calling for charges to be filed in Perez Lopez’ death.
Earlier Gascón filed charges against Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies who beat a man in a Mission District alley, but his office has never charged San Francisco Police Department officers involved in shootings of civilians. In the last five years there have been five police shootings in the Mission District.
“It feels like they killed him all over again,” said Smith, adding that he is not surprised at the decision. “We have known all along that the DA was biased in favor of the police narrative….He clearly did not want to bring charges.”
Smith said that the report focuses on a common police narrative in officer-involved shootings that “vilifies the people they kill.” He pointed to one section of the report in which Tiffe recounts making eye contact with Perez Lopez, who he alleged was drunk, and describing the look on his face as “bloodlust crazed.”
“They made efforts to do that with Amilcar, who had no criminal record and was a law abiding hard working citizen,” said Smith. What the report also failed to mention, said Smith, is that both Reboli and Tiffe had previously been accused of brutality in a civil suit.
Smith also claimed that Gascón did not make good on a personal promise to notify him and other activists before announcing his decision and to walk them through the report.
“He blew off that promise, which shows a disregard and lack of respect for the community that is hurting and traumatized,” said Smith.
The investigation involved a use of force expert’s analysis as well as “analysis of forensic evidence relative to time, distance and motion in order to create an animation which compares the physical evidence with statements provided by the two officers involved in the shooting,” according to a statement released by the District Attorney’s office.
According to police statements, Reboli and Tiffe responded to a 911 call about a man armed with a knife chasing another man on a bicycle, identified in the report as Abraham P and in other news media reports as Abraham Perez. The officers encountered Perez Lopez near his home on Folsom Street near 24th street on the evening of February 26, 2015. Perez Lopez was reportedly chasing Abraham Perez with a knife.
Accounts by witnesses and police about the confrontation between the victim and Perez that led to the chase varied. The District Attorney’s findings explored the various statements, but offered video from a passing MUNI bus as evidence that Perez may have been blocking the victim’s path as he was trying to enter his home.
Over the past two years, witnesses to the incident that include two of Perez Lopez’ roommates have stepped forward to testify that they heard Perez Lopez drop his knife when the officers approached and ordered him to do so. They said he had been running away from the officers moments before he was shot. Activists have often pointed to the fact that Perez Lopez was shot from behind as an indicator that the shooting was unjustified.
But the version of the encounter told by Reboli and Tiffe contradicts these testimonies. The officers said that Perez Lopez refused to drop his knife and was charging at them, prompting the officers to fire at him. The shots hit Perez Lopez in the back because he was turning away, officers said. Gascón indicated today that the shooting could be defended whether Perez Lopez had been lunging at the officers or had already turned away.
“Even if Mr. Perez Lopez was running away from the officers, thereby opening the door to the possibility that they did not have fear of their own safety, the direction he was running in would still give the the officers a reasonable belief that Abraham P. was in danger,” said Gascón referring to the allegation that the victim was running after Perez.
Reporters pressed Gascón on whether the officers identified themselves. The report says the officers remember identifying themselves, and that Tiffe also said that if Perez Lopez did not understand them, he also had a police star hanging from a chain around his neck. Gascón stressed that that recordings and witness accounts analyzed in the investigation show that the officers told Perez Lopez to drop the knife.
“For the legal analysis, it really doesn’t matter whether they say “police” or they didn’t. They have their badges hanging – one had the badge clipped to the belt and the other had it hanging from a chain over his jacket,” he said.
Activists have long held that Perez Lopez did not speak much Spanish, let alone English, and probably failed to understand what was happening as he was approached by plainclothes police officers speaking English. Gascón told reporters that Perez Lopez’s spoken English skills was not a big factor in his decision.
“I don’t know if he understood or not, but I think it was clear there was a gun being pointed at him and they were giving him some direction,” Gascón responded. “Whether there was a language barrier or not I think would be purely speculation on our part.”