Police provide explanation of Bernal Heights Park shooting at emotional town hall meeting

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Sup. David Campos (left) and San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr (right) at a Wed/25 town hall meeting about a police shooting.
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY REBECCA BOWE

The San Francisco Police Department held a town hall meeting at Leonard Flynn Elementary school last night [Wed/25] to discuss a March 21 officer-involved shooting that fatally wounded 28-year-old Alejandro Nieto. The meeting drew a large crowd, with members of the community taking turns speaking for several hours to vent their frustration and sadness over Nieto's death.

At the start of the meeting, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr provided an account of the events leading up to Nieto being gunned down by at least four police officers in Bernal Heights Park. Despite earlier reports that he had a gun in a holster on his hip, it was later discovered that Nieto had actually been carrying a Taser, Suhr said. Friends said Nieto had a Taser because he worked as a night club security guard.

The police chief said the encounter started because someone who had seen Nieto inside Bernal Heights Park dialed 911 at about 7:11pm to report that there was a man with "a gun on his hip. A black handgun.”

About a minute later, according to a printout from the 911 dispatch that Suhr read out loud, the person who had called 911 provided an update that "the man was pacing back and forth, by a chain-linked fence, near a bench.”

After a couple minutes, the 911 dispatch record showed, the reporting party said "the subject is still on scene ... He is eating chips, or sunflowers [sunflower seeds?], but resting his hand on the gun.”

Then, “At about 7:15, a sergeant from Ingleside station and another officer go on scene and start a search for the area ... At about 7:18 and 49 seconds, that same reporting party – again, who’s not a police officer – heard shots fired. The shots ... were fired by the police department.”

Within three and a half minutes of arriving to the scene, police had opened fire and shot Nieto multiple times. While friends said he was shot 14 times, Suhr said he did not yet know how many bullets had struck Nieto. Suhr confirmed that the officers who had been involved in the shooting had been placed on paid leave.

“What Mr. Nieto had was, he had a black Taser pistol," Suhr said. “The distance from which the officers engaged Mr. Nieto was about … 75 feet, up a hill." To illustrate the distance, he said it was about from where he was standing to the back wall of the room. From that distance, he later said, "they could not make out that there was any yellow on the gun." 

Suhr went on: "When the officers asked him to show his hands, he drew the Taser from the holster. And these particular Tasers, as soon as they’re drawn, they emit a dot. A red dot.”

Suhr picked up a Taser and pointed it at the back wall of the room, where a small red dot was visible, to underscore the point.

“When the officers saw the laser sight on them, tracking, they believed it to be a firearm, and they fired at Mr. Nieto," the police chief went on. "He did not survive his injuries.” Suhr added that police “believed he had a firearm. They fired in defense of their own lives.” In a later interview, he confirmed that officers would not have used lethal force had they known that Nieto possessed a Taser instead of a firearm.

Clearly, some who turned out at the meeting weren't buying the police account.

Ben Bac Sierra, who was friends with Nieto, asked Suhr several questions at the meeting. "What kind of warning did police provide to Alex? Did they have a loudspeaker of some sort? Did officers approach with weapons drawn? Now that you're saying that he pointed the laser at them, then I can imagine that the yellow [Taser markings] were clearly visible. At 7pm it is still daylight outside. So why wouldn't officers know immediately? And why was there no call for cease fire once one of the intelligent, professionally trained officers could tell that that was a Taser? I have witnesses' accounts: Some say 50 bullets were shot at that time."

Others who knew Nieto well were skeptical of the idea that he would have pulled out his Taser in response to being asked to show his hands.

Nieto was one semester away from graduating from City College of San Francisco, where he was studying Administration of Justice with a longterm goal of becoming a youth probation officer. He was mentored by people whose lives were devoted to helping youth who had gone through the criminal justice system to improve their lives. He practiced Buddhism. He had passed a required state exam to become a security guard.

"To me, it doesn't add up," said Carlos Gonzalez, a muralist and youth probation officer who knew Nieto, as he spoke at the town hall meeting. "It just doesn't make sense to me that he would be that dumb to do something like that."

At the meeting, Suhr said Nieto had been barred from possessing a firearm due to a history of mental illness. Some witness accounts in the media described a man who was "pacing," "air boxing," and threatening a dog with a Taser. At the same time, the record suggests dispatchers and police did not consider themselves to be responding to a call involving a mentally ill individual. Asked if members of the department's Crisis Intervention Team, which has officers specifically trained to deal with people experiencing mental illness, had been dispatched to the scene, Suhr told the Bay Guardian, "There was never any indication ... the whole thing unfolded in minutes. It was a man with a gun call."

Suhr also mentioned during the town hall meeting that Nieto did not have a criminal record, but that a restraining order had been filed against him.

Records show that on March 20, the day before Nieto was killed, San Francisco resident Yajaira Barrera Estrada had requested a restraining order against Nieto. The next day, the request was partly granted and partly denied pending a hearing that had been set for April 11. In her request, Estrada described her relationship with Nieto by saying they "used to be friends." She wrote in the document that an incident had occurred on March 5, in which Nieto had "started to shoot my husband with a Taser gun 3 to 4 times," in front of her son.

Her husband, Arthur Vega, also filed a request for a restraining order against Nieto, on March 14. "Five years ago he use to be a friend of mine but now he has bad blood for me," Vega wrote in that request. He described the same incident, saying Nieto had attacked him with a Taser. His request also noted, "Alejandro also has a restraining order against me," evidently stemming from some previous altercation in which Vega may have been the aggressor.

When we reached Estrada by phone, she declined to discuss the restraining order or the circumstances surrounding it. However she did say this: "Alex was an excellent person. I don't know why the media is writing bad things about him. I don't know why the police shot him. He was an excellent person with me."

Near the end of the meeting, Sup. David Campos issued a public apology to Nieto's father. Then, with Campos translating, Nieto's father explained that he had not learned that Nieto had been shot by police until the day after it happened. "And then when the police investigators came in, the first thing they were asking him was ... about Alejandro," Campos said, translating what Nieto's father was telling him in Spanish. "It wasn't until they had asked all the questions that they actually told them what had happened. And then they wanted to go into his room and search the room, and he said no."

Then police took Nieto's car, Campos added, saying they needed it for an investigation. "And so they're trying to understand why that happened, given that it had nothing to do with what actually took place," Campos noted. Meanwhile, "They haven't said anything to him about when they're going to ... release the body."

Below are some more comments and photographs from the town hall meeting.

And here are some comments from Blanca Gutierrez and her 10-year-old son, Sebastian, who spoke at the hearing:

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