The past four weeks have perhaps been the hardest times that many of Alejandro Nieto’s close family and friends will have to experience in their lives.
The shocking news of the 28-year-old man’s death at the hands of San Francisco police officers, the storm of media coverage and confusion that followed, as well as the accusations and lack of information revealed by those responsible, have led many community members to denounce police brutality and injustices in the legal system.
On April 21, a group consisting of those who knew Nieto and many who didn’t, participated in the first of what they said will be monthly memorial gatherings to “demand justice.” Burritos in hand, they trekked from Precita Park up to the west side of Bernal Hill, where the young man was gunned down just a month earlier—Nieto is said to have been eating a burrito at this spot before being shot at least 10 times by San Francisco Police officers on the evening of March 21.
“How many people who were born and raised in the Mission or in Bernal, had one of their very first kisses on this hill? This place was traditionally called ‘Lover’s Lane.” This is what they called it, because everybody came out here to have their first romance,” said Adriana Camarena, a law consultant and literary writer. “Alex loved this place— he was a lover, and that’s why he would come up here, to see this beautiful view and sunset.”
The grief and anger over what Nieto’s family believes to have been an unjustified shooting has been directed into a community movement demanding justice.
“I believe that profiling occurred in this case,” said Benjamin Bac Sierra, author and professor at City College of San Francisco, who is serving as the Nieto family’s spokesperson. In a recording of the 911 dispatch call made on the evening Nieto was killed, a neighbor reported that he had seen a man “pacing” on Bernal Hill, with what appeared to be a gun in his holster. It was later determined that Nieto was in possession of a Taser, which he was licensed to carry for his job as a security guard.
“(The officers) hear his description—Latin male, 6-foot tall—and that causes them some intimidation, because he’s somewhat tall. He has a red jacket on. He has never been involved with guns, never been arrested in his life, but I believe they profiled him as some type of gang-involved individual,” added Bac Sierra. “If Alex had been a blond-haired, blue-eyed, 6-foot individual with what appears to be a gun on a holster, eating a corned-beef sandwich—he may have been mistaken as an off-duty police officer. There’s a mindset that occurred as they were approaching.”
A week before the memorial gathering, Nieto’s family filed a claim against the City, initiating the process for a lawsuit.
“The claim is the first step a person must take in order to file a lawsuit against the city district court… (we) filed so that the City will do the right thing, which is not only to provide the information that we believe the family and the community are entitled to in order to evaluate this incident on their own, but also to compensate the family for the loss of their child,” said Adante Pointer, an associate attorney with the law offices of prominent civil rights lawyer John Burris, who is representing the family.
The City has yet to respond in a given 45-day timeframe, according to Pointer.
Besides seeking compensation for the family, the claim demands that the City and its entities “preserve all evidence” relating to the case. The family accuses the police department of not having been forthcoming with information regarding Nieto’s death—the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s report has yet to be released, nor have the names of the officers involved in the shooting been disclosed.
A media spokesperson for the Ingleside Police Station has confirmed that, following a paid-administrative leave, all officers are now back on duty.
Pointer and his law firm have conducted their own investigation of Nieto’s body, and confirmed that he was shot at least 10 times. He claims that the police department has not been transparent in their investigation.
“When the police chief came to the Town Hall meeting, he said he didn’t know how many times (Nieto) was hit… he didn’t know how many times (the officers) shot. But we know that wasn’t true because it is protocol that after a police shooting, the involved officers’ guns are taken from the officers and the bullets are counted up to see how many shots were actually fired and then from there you can deduce how many times the person was actually hit,” said Pointer. “I believe they had that information. They may not have known how many times he was hit until the medical examiner told them, but it didn’t take much for us to look at the body and at least count a minimum number of shots.”
The attorney’s investigation also revealed an 18-second audio recording taken from a neighbor’s security system that captured the sequence of shots fired at Nieto by the police officers. Bac Sierra stressed that the time intervals of the shots fired—there is a 6.5 second pause in the recording between the initial two shots and an estimated 12-16 shots that followed—do not match up with statements made by the police.
“Why would they allow a pause of 6.5 seconds before throwing another volley?” he asked.
It is a question that the family’s lawyers will attempt to shed light on if the case goes to trial.
“In the recordings, you have two to three initial shots, then there’s a pause…and a flurry of shots after that,” said Pointer. “What is the basis—the reasoning—for shooting all of those additional shots? We know he was shot at least 10 times. With three shots fired—he was hit, and that would disable most people.”
Story by: Laura Waxmann