The two San Francisco Police officers who fatally shot 21-year-old Guatemalan immigrant Amilcar Perez-Lopez in the Mission District in February 2015 acted within department policy, according to a report released Wednesday. They were not disciplined for the incident.
District Attorney George Gascón in April 2017 cleared Officers Eric Reboli and Craig Tiffe of criminal wrongdoing. The police department’s report, completed in July 2017 but released yesterday under California’s new police transparency law, shows the conclusion of the department’s internal investigation into the matter.
The investigation ultimately concluded that both officers used their guns properly as they fired in defense of each other, as well as another civilian involved in the incident. Perez-Lopez, who was armed with an eight-inch knife, was ultimately shot six times, with five of the shots entering through his back, according to the Medical Examiner’s report.
“Each officer fired only when he believed the threat necessitated the use of lethal force,” the report says. “Each officer stopped firing as soon as he recognized the immediate threat was over.”
The report did, however, state that Tiffe violated policy by not arming himself with less-lethal force options before engaging with Perez-Lopez. But that was of no consequence, according to department brass.
“Once the physical struggle was rapidly initiated, Mr. Perez- Lopez almost immediately revealed himself to be a deadly threat,” the report says. “Transition at to a force option other than his firearm in the circumstances faced by Officer Tiffe would have placed Officer Tiffe at unnecessary risk.”
Perez-Lopez’s death sparked protests in Mission and was among the first in a series of uncharged police shootings that year that became a cause célèbre against police shootings of blacks and Latinos. These protests contributed to the resignation of Chief Greg Suhr in 2016 and a federal review of the department the same year.
Perez-Lopez, meanwhile, has become a local saint. Some in the community believed officers did not do enough to de-escalate the situation — especially as Perez-Lopez reportedly spoke very little English. He was also known as a hard worker, a young Guatemalan immigrant looking for a better life in the United States and who reportedly sent money back to his family in Guatemala for basics like electricity. His likeness is being memorialized in a mural at 24th and Capp streets.
The police report released Wednesday “doesn’t say anything new or surprising,” said Father Richard Smith, who strongly advocated for the District Attorney to charge Officers Reboli and Tiffe following the incident. “In that context, evidence could be seen from all sides, witnesses could be examined from all sides.”
Instead, he said, the public is now left with a series of investigative reports written primarily by law enforcement. “We’re left having to take the word of the police and the DA,” Smith said.
Nonetheless, according to the police report, on Feb. 26, 2015, at around 9:44 p.m., Reboli and Tiffe — both in plainclothes and in an unmarked sedan — responded to reports of a man chasing another man with a knife on Folsom Street near 24th.
(The two men, Perez-Lopez and a man named later identified as “Abraham P.,” had previously been in a dispute about Perez-Lopez’s bicycle.)
The officers soon caught up to the men near 25th Street, where the men were facing each other from opposite sides of a parked car. Reboli engaged with the other man, while Tiffe engaged with Perez-Lopez, whom the officer testified displayed an aggressive demeanor.
Tiffe reportedly identified himself as a police officer and ordered him away from the car. When Perez-Lopez did not listen, Tiffe attempted to physically restrain Perez-Lopez, but as he did so, according to the report, Perez-Lopez “swung toward the officer, lunging at him with his right hand.”
Tiffe backed up, drew his gun and ordered Perez Lopez to drop the knife. Reboli reportedly thought that Tiffe had already been injured and approached Perez-Lopez with his gun drawn. According to the report, Perez-Lopez then turned toward Reboli, swinging the knife.
Reboli then shot at Perez-Lopez five times. “As he started to fire, Mr. Perez-Lopez swung away from Officer Reboli and moved toward the street, where [the civilian] had been,” the report says. “Officer Reboli stated that he was fearful that his partner had already been injured and was in danger of further injury or death.”
Tiffe then fired a single shot. “Officer Tiffe was fearful that Mr. Perez-Lopez, who had assaulted him and his partner with a deadly weapon was about to attack [the civilian],” the report says.
Yet over the years, witnesses of the incident — including two of Perez-Lopez’ roommates — have stepped forward to testify that the officers did not give Perez-Lopez a chance to drop the knife before they shot.
“They fired on him immediately. When they said that, ‘drop the weapon,’ they didn’t give him time and they fired at him,” one of Perez-Lopez’s roommates, “David D.” told the DA investigators.
Squaring the accounts, Smith said, is no longer possible with the DA’s charging decision. And, because Perez-Lopez’s family last year settled with the city for $275,000, details of the case will not be aired in civil court, either.
“The point is we’re never going to know what happened here,” Smith said. “That’s the tragedy: we’re never going to have the truth.”