Waiting for answers

Community calls for justice and transparency in police shooting of Nieto after new eyewitness contradicts SFPD version

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Protesters rally against police violence outside the San Francisco Federal Building.
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY REBECCA BOWE

rebecca@sfbg.com

As word spread to San Francisco that police in Ferguson, Mo., were taking reporters into custody and firing tear gas at demonstrators outraged by the death of Mike Brown, a small group of writers and organizers with ties to the Mission District was gearing up to hold street demonstrations of its own.

On Aug. 21 and 22, they staged vigils and a march and rally in memory of a different shooting victim: Alejandro ("Alex") Nieto, who died suddenly in Bernal Heights Park on March 21 after being struck by a volley of police bullets.

Despite palpable anger expressed during the events held to mark five months since Nieto's death, it was a far cry from the angry demonstrations unleashed on the streets of Ferguson, where it was like something stretched too far and snapped.

People who knew Nieto gathered for a sunset vigil in Bernal Heights Park at the place where he was killed. They returned the following morning for a sunrise vigil, incorporating a spiritual element with Buddhist chanting. Hours later, in a march preceded by dancers who spun in the streets, donning long feathered headdresses and ankle rattles made out of hollowed tree nuts, they progressed from Bernal Hill to the San Francisco Federal Building.

Despite a visible police mobilization, the protests remained peaceful, with little interaction between officers and demonstrators. Instead, the focus remained on the contents of a civil rights complaint filed Aug. 22 by attorney John Burris, famous for his track record of representing victims of police violence.

Burris, who is representing Nieto's parents, said he rejected the SFPD's explanation of why officers were justified in discharging their weapons and killing Nieto. "What we will seek to do is to vindicate his interests, his good name, and to show through the evidence that the narrative put forth by the police was just flat-out wrong," Burris said at the rally.

Nieto's encounter with police arose because a 911 caller erroneously reported that he had a black handgun, leading police to enter the park in search of a gunman. In reality, Nieto possessed a Taser, not a firearm. On the night he was killed, he'd gone to the park to eat a burrito just before starting his shift as a part-time security guard at a nightclub, where all the guards carry Tasers. In addition to working at that job, Nieto, who was 28, had been studying administration of justice at City College of San Francisco in hopes of becoming a youth probation officer.

Days after the shooting, police said Nieto had pointed his Taser at officers when they approached. At a March 26 town hall meeting convened shortly after the incident, Police Chief Greg Suhr told attendees that Nieto had "tracked" officers with his Taser, emitting a red laser.

"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 said, adding that Nieto had verbally challenged officers when they asked him to drop his weapon. "When the officers saw the laser sight on them, tracking, they believed it to be a firearm, and they fired at Mr. Nieto."

Yet attorney Adante Pointer, of Burris's law office, told the Bay Guardian that a person claiming to be an eyewitness to the shooting has come forward with a different account. The witness, whose identity Pointer did not disclose, said he never saw Nieto draw his Taser and did not hear any verbal exchange prior to bullets being fired.

"To suggest that he'd engaged in the most ridiculous outrageous conduct, of pointing a ... Taser at the police when they had guns drawn, is insulting," Burris said at the rally.

The version of events included in the complaint, which Pointer said was based in part on witness accounts, differs greatly from the SFPD account.