Tensions were high Tuesday night as the San Francisco police chief attempted to explain what led to the shooting death of a 28-year-old man at the city’s Bernal Heights Park last week.
Police Chief Greg Suhr addressed a crowded auditorium at Leonard R. Flynn Elementary School located at 3125 Cesar Chavez St. for a 6 p.m. town hall meeting where family, friends, Bernal Heights residents and others gathered to hear details about the death of Alejandro Nieto.
Nieto, a San Francisco native who lived in the heart of the Bernal Heights neighborhood on Cortland Avenue, was a security guard who attended City College of San Francisco with aspirations of being a probation officer. He was also a practicing Buddhist, according to friends and family members.
His father sat in the front of the auditorium, looking somber with other relatives and close friends, all dressed in dark colors. Other friends wore T-shirts that read, “RIP Alex.”
Suhr started speaking and was quickly greeted with shouts from the crowd, calling out “murderer” and other expletives about the police.
The chief tried to bring order to the meeting, saying, “I know people are grieving, people are upset,” and called for attendees to treat speakers with respect.
He explained the sequence of events surrounding the shooting. A call came into police at 7:11 p.m. Friday about a man at Bernal Heights Park wearing a bright red jacket with a black handgun on his hip pacing by a chain link fence near a bench.
The chief said the caller described a man eating either chips or sunflower seeds with his hand resting on what looked like a gun.
Officers arrived at the park minutes later, and encountered Nieto with what they believed to be a gun in a holster while standing about 75 feet away with his back against the setting sun.
Suhr stood in front of a poster board with photos of a Taser pistol Nieto had on him and the holster he used to carry it. Alongside those images were photos of a real handgun.
The chief said the two weapons could be construed as similar from a distance.
People in the crowd yelled out, “Can’t you tell the difference?” and “That doesn’t look like a gun.”
According to Suhr, when police asked Nieto to show his hands, he told “You need to show your hands.”
Suhr said, Nieto pointed his weapon at several officers, prompting them to fire multiple rounds at Nieto.
“They fired in defense of their own lives,” Suhr said, eliciting uproar from the audience.
Nieto was pronounced dead at the scene. Suhr said he didn’t know how many times Nieto was hit, but he knows more than one bullet struck him.
Suhr said the officers thought Nieto had a firearm on him, but after the incident it was determined that because of mental health reasons Nieto was prohibited from legally owning a gun. He only had a Taser at the time of the shooting.
Nieto apparently had no criminal record, according to Suhr, but last week a restraining order was filed against him by a man who said he used to be friends with Nieto.
In the court document requesting the restraining order, the man said he had been attacked by Nieto in front of his 3-year-old son and that he feared for his wife and his young children, ages 11, 4 and 3.
Nieto previously had a restraining order against the man, who described their deteriorated friendship as “bad blood” and in other court filings claimed Nieto had fired his Taser gun at him at least four times.
San Francisco Police Commission President Thomas Mazzucco said there are multiple investigations being conducted to see if officers used “appropriate force.” The officers have been placed on paid administrative leave and were not at the town hall meeting.
Suhr would not give details about the officers involved in the shooting.
Adante Porter from John Burris’ Oakland law office is representing the Nieto family, and a family friend asked for any witnesses to contact the lawyer.
After Suhr shared his condolences with Nieto’s father, he opened the meeting up to attendees who filed into a line to ask questions.
San Francisco Supervisor David Campos, whose district includes Bernal Heights, also attended the town hall and a representative from his office told attendees to contact his office about any concerns stemming from the shooting.
Most of the speakers gave passionate statements about Nieto’s death or asked rhetorical questions, such as “Why’d you have to take his life?”
Gloria La Riva, with the ANSWER Coalition, or Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, compared the shooting to the Oct. 22 death of 13-year-old Andy Lopez, who was gunned down by a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy while holding a toy rifle.
Ki Won Yoon addressed the police, including members of the command staff, and told them, “Do you realize your very presence … escalates the situation?” He called for police to stop using guns and to become more community-minded.
He also mentioned the caller who alerted police to Nieto pacing at the park: “Whoever made that call to police, I hope they are having a long think tonight.”
Former San Francisco Supervisor Christina Olague attended the meeting and shared her condolences with the family. She said she didn’t know Nieto but “he sounds like a lot of people I know.”
She pointed out the irony that Nieto was killed by officers while he was training to become a probation officer.
Adriana Camarena said she met Nieto at a CCSF protest and said since the shooting she has realized there is “mutual respect missing in this case” and in general between the police force and San Francisco’s minority groups.
She then asked a series of questions about the specifics of the shooting and police protocol.
Dozens of others spoke during the meeting, which was still in full force hours into the discussion.
Sasha Lekach, Bay City News