By Tim Redmond
AUGUST 22, 2014 — The family of Alex Nieto filed suit in federal court today, alleging that the version of the story of his killing peddled by Police Chief Greg Suhr is inaccurate and that at no point did Nieto draw his taser and aim it at officers.
The narrative presented in the lawsuit is backed up, attorney John Burris says, by eyewitnesses found by his office. “In the aftermath of the incident, the City and County of San Francisco and the involved officers claimed Alex defied Officers’ orders and pointed a taser at them. The Officers claimed they mistook the taser for a handgun, causing them to fear for their lives and as a result shot and killed him. After an independent investigation led by the community and the Law Offices of John L. Burris, witnesses along with physical evidence was uncovered which contradicts CCSF’s version of the events,” the lawsuit states.
In a community meeting after the shooting, Suhr said that Nieto had brandished his taser and aimed it at officers. Even after the first shots, the chief said, Nieto kept the weapon – which emits a red laser dot, similar to some handguns – pointed at the police.
Early reports also stated that Nieto was acting erratically.
However, the suit offers a very different story.
Nieto, according to the suit, left his home in the evening of March 21, 2014 and bought a burrito for dinner. He was wearing a taser that he used in his job as a security guard. He took his meal up the Bernal Hill and sat in a bench in the park.
“Witnesses recount Mr. Nieta at the park peacefully sitting alone on the bench enjoying his burrito,” the suit states. “A yet to be identified person called 911 and erroneously reported Mr. Nieto as having a black gun on his hip. The caller mistook the black and yellow taser Mr. Nieto lawfully carried … for a gun. However, the caller did not claim Mr. Nieto was bothering anyone or making any type of threatening gestures with the reported “gun.”
Several SFPD officers responded to the call. Officer Albie Esparza has confirmed to me that they drove their cars onto the paved surface that’s part of the park and that they were able to take cover behind those cars.
“One of the officers behind the patrol car called out and ordered Mr. Nieto to “stop,” the suit states. “Within seconds a quick volley of shots were fired at Mr. Nieto.
The first volley was short, followed by a pause and a second volley. You can listen to the audio of those shots here.
The critical part of the narrative: Did Nieto threaten or point his weapon, which officers could have mistaken for a gun, in the direction of police? Were they able to take cover behind their cars? If he was acting erratically, should they have held fire and engaged in the procedures developed for dealing with mentally-ill people?
According to the lawsuit, Nieto was never showing any signs of unusual behavior.
“In the aftermath of the incident, SFPD claims Mr. Nieto refused to comply with officers’ requests for him to show them his hands and instead pointed the taser at them, challenged their authority forcing the officers to shoot him. However, the ear and eye witnesses’ revelations undermine SFPD’s claims.”
The witnesses, Burris alleges, “did not her Mr. Nieto threaten anyone or see him attempt to grab or point any object at the officers prior to being shot.
Burris has not named the witnesses. He confirmed to the Bay Guardian that those witnesses did not see him point his weapon or threaten the police.
SFPD has refused to identify the officers involved.
But at some point, as this moves toward a trial, all that information will have to come out.
Bernal Hill is a popular place, and in the early evening, there are typically dozens of people strolling, walking their dogs, and enjoying the view. Police quickly closed off the road and jogging area where Nieto was sitting, or maybe standing, but there are lots of places on the hillside above where people could see what was going on.
I’m actually surprised nobody got cell-phone camera footage. But I’m not surprised that there may be eyewitnesses other than the police officers.
If Burris has credible, sworn witnesses who contradict what the police said, the evidence could be explosive – which would give the city every reason to reach a quick settlement.
The longer the litigation goes on, the more likely the details will all become public – which can only be good.