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:

Comments

Life has been a downhill slide for her since her ass was booted from that supervisor's seat she never should have been appointed to in the first place.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 28, 2014 @ 5:41 pm
Posted by Guest on Mar. 28, 2014 @ 5:58 pm

No doubt afraid of winning the long-odds lottery by getting shot to death in the line of duty, the cops decided they'd be extra careful by shooting an unarmed man. Did they, guns drawn scream at him to take out "his gun" and then shoot when they saw the red laser? The one thing for sure is--as others have mentioned--you'd have to be a complete fool to believe what the cops say.

Fucking cops lie all the time. They lie and they preen about "how dangerous their jobs are"--when in fact they have far safer jobs than many other working Americans such as pilots, electricians, steel workers, taxi cab drivers--let alone commercial fishermen--none of whom expect to be able to kill others "for their own safety."

Posted by lillipublicans on Mar. 28, 2014 @ 6:31 pm

Several years ago I was involved in an incident in SF where the cops thought someone in my group had a gun (we didn't). Some asshole called 911 because he was pissed that someone in our group had been talking to a girl he liked and said we had a gun on us (we found out much later through the bartender). As we were leaving the bar, we were surrounded by eight or so cops, all with their guns drawn. All of us raised our hands and followed their instructions. They searched us, checked our IDs, and questioned us. When it was clear we had nothing and done nothing, they informed us what the call was about, explained that they have to take all these calls seriously, and told us to try and have a good rest of the night.

We all had more than a few drinks in us, but to a man we knew that reaching for ANYTHING or making any sudden movements would end really badly for us. I learned at a real young age to not make anyone (cop or criminal) with a gun pointed at you jumpy. Cops are human beings and want to go home at night. If they feel that it's your life or theirs (or their partner's or a civilian's) on the line, you lose EVERY time.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 28, 2014 @ 7:02 pm

You're white?

Posted by Greg on Mar. 28, 2014 @ 11:20 pm
Posted by lillipublicans on Mar. 29, 2014 @ 12:26 am

Oh and Lilli don't let me forget you either. I don't have anything to do with the police or the city government. Don't you need to go and put up a troll bumper (oh wait you can't) or get banned from another website?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 29, 2014 @ 1:01 am

Actually I was waiting for someone (and it would've probably been you) to say that. No Greg I'm not white. But nice to know you ended up showing your prejudices.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 29, 2014 @ 12:57 am

You can be anything. You can be black. You can be Hispanic. Whatever. Especially when you sign in as a "Guest." Signing in as Guest wipes everything away. No one knows what you wrote before, so you can write anything and make it sound credible.

But I can pretty much guarantee that for the above tale to be true, it's IMPOSSIBLE for you to be black or brown. Cops just do not respond to groups of black or brown people that way. Of course this is just a tale from some anonymous poster on the internet. There's no corroboration of it whatsoever, so for all we know the whole thing could be made up out of whole cloth.

Posted by Greg on Mar. 29, 2014 @ 7:51 am
Posted by Greg on Mar. 29, 2014 @ 9:23 am

So every time there is a report (real or false) to police that there's a black or Latino guy with a gun, the suspect ends up dead? Do you even think about the things you write Greg? Or does your hatred of cops blind you so much that you can't even think objectively?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 29, 2014 @ 11:50 am

So anything someone says that doesn't fit your narrative is made up Greg? Idiot.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 29, 2014 @ 12:19 pm

Thanks for proving your automatic anti-white and anti-cop bias Greg. You're TOO easy.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 29, 2014 @ 1:07 am

Let me chime in here. I, too, tend to hate straight white male cops, especially the fat ones.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 29, 2014 @ 9:32 am

overpaid government workers and the left usually love those.

Then again, cops couldn't work so effectively if people thought they were pussy cats who can easily be controlled.

The voters almost always approve propositions that support the police and introduce more severe punishments for criminals, so the anti-cop bias occasionally seen here is a fringe minority extreme opinion.

Personally I have always found the police to be civil and responsive.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 29, 2014 @ 9:58 am

white cops seems to provide an extremely target-rich grouping for public revulsion and abhorrence.

Posted by lillipublicans on Mar. 29, 2014 @ 10:13 am
Posted by Guest on Mar. 29, 2014 @ 10:29 am

FUCK THE POLICE TIME HAS COME AND FOR THE NON NATIVES GET THE FUCK OUT

Posted by GuesHOMEGROWN on Mar. 29, 2014 @ 10:17 am

So you want the city to be empty?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 29, 2014 @ 10:45 am

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