San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon says he’s about to announce his long-awaited decision about whether to charge the officers who killed Amilcar Perez Lopez with murder.
Since Amilcar’s death in February 2015, hundreds in the Bay Area have insisted the DA give us–Amilcar’s family, the community, and the officers themselves–our day in court where evidence can be openly evaluated, witnesses can be publicly examined and cross-examined, and his family can get the information they have a right to. We have marched, held press conferences, signed a petition, and stood in more than 35 vigils both outside the local police station and at the site where Amilcar fell.
But will the DA show the political and moral will to bring this case to trial?
When I first saw a photo of Amilcar, I mistook him for my son. These two young Latinos with their dark eyes and Mayan cheekbones and noses could have been twins. Amilcar could have been my kid. That photo was part of a makeshift altar his neighbors had built and around which they stood a couple of mornings after his killing to grieve and remember.
Three years before, with his family in dire poverty, 17-year-old Amilcar had left Guatemala to find work. He ended up in San Francisco where he worked two construction jobs, sometimes putting in 22-hour days, sleeping on a cot in a boiler room at night. At one point he proudly sent his family enough to install electricity in their home.
He had had no run-ins with the law, was a hard worker, and a loyal, thoughtful young man who liked to joke and play tricks on his friends. He was hardly the violent thug the police chief would try to portray a couple of nights later.
The chief’s false account
In a crowded elementary school lunchroom, then-Chief Greg Suhr told a tearful and angry crowd Amilcar had lunged at officers with a knife, and they in turn had shot him in self-defense. But as I learned a few weeks later, just moments before beginning Amilcar’s funeral in my church, an independent autopsy report would show Amilcar had been killed by six shots to the back, making the Chief’s version physically impossible. The chief had not told us the truth.
The neighbors’ account
That autopsy corroborated what I’d heard on the street–that a neighborhood “bully” had stolen Amilcar’s cell phone and taken off on a bike. Armed with a steak knife, Amilcar had chased the bicyclist up the street, eventually catching up to him. The two resolved everything amicably. Amilcar, his cell phone back in his pocket, was casually walking home when an unmarked police car pulled up.
A plainclothes officer jumped out of the car, ran up to the 5-foot-3-inch Amilcar, and grabbed him from behind in a bear hug. That officer began shouting at him in English, a language Amilcar did not understand. Not knowing they were police, and thinking he was under attack, Amilcar wriggled free and ran into the street.
A neighbor reports hearing the first shot, then an officer yelling, “Oh, shit!”, then five more shots. Amilcar was dead in the street.
The police change their story
After both the independent autopsy and later the San Francisco Medical Examiner disproved the chief’s initial report, SFPD changed their story. They now say Amilcar and the bicyclist were squared off against each other when the officers arrived. One of the officers “made contact” with Amilcar, who then ran off to attack the bicyclist. They shot Amilcar not in self-defense as originally stated, but to protect the bicyclist.
They leave to our imagination why an officer would attempt to “make contact” with an armed man in the midst of a fight, or how they could be sure Amilcar intended to attack the bicyclist rather than simply flee a threatening situation in which he was clearly outnumbered by much larger men.
Seizing cell phones
The night of the killing, as cops began marking the crime scene with yellow tape, residents emerged from their homes, some taking videos and asking questions, everyone looking in horror at the young man’s dead body in the street. Neighbors say the officers tried to seize cellphones to prevent people from taking videos, and insisted everyone return to their homes and close the drapes.
No independent investigation
The police investigated the crime scene, and the medical examiner examined the body, but, mysteriously, the DA’s investigators–the ones charged with conducting investigations independent of the police–never showed up. Eventually, the police simply released the body to the morgue with no independent investigation by the DA’s team. Months later we learned how they managed what the DA would understandably describe as “a serious breach of protocol.”
Although the shooting had taken place just before 10pm, the officers had mistakenly called the DA’s business-hours phone, which was unstaffed at the time, instead of the after-hours number they’d been advised to call after previously making the same mistake. The DA learned about the killing on the late news, but by the time his investigators arrived at the scene, the body, the bulk of the evidence, was already removed.
According to the DA, this breach, which may have compromised his overall investigation, certainly made it more difficult and lengthy. The DA has had to hire a costly outside expert to help reconstruct the crime scene.
Paid vacations for the officers
After Amilcar’s killing, the two officers were given the prescribed two weeks’ paid vacation, called “Administrative Leave,” before returning to their regular jobs. They now patrol my neighborhood — which crosses my mind every time my kid walks out the door. This is a fear I share with the parents of the other brown kids in the Mission District.
Several months after Amilcar’s death, two eyewitnesses to the shooting remained too traumatized from what they had seen and too afraid of the police to step forward. (“We saw what [the cops] did to Amilcar,” they reasoned. “What will they do to us if we now testify against them?”) Because both eyewitnesses were undocumented, they carried the additional fear of deportation.
Several of us in the community lined up an attorney to legalize their immigration status, and mental health services to help them manage the effects of the trauma. We wanted them to be both safe and comfortable should they chose to say what they’d seen and heard. In December 2015, the two arrived at my church where they bravely testified for four and a half hours to the DA’s investigators.
The DA’s reasoning
Since this tragic killing, many of us have met with the DA for progress reports on the investigation. It is clear from these meetings he defers to the police version of events and not the community’s.
Speaking to a large gathering of leaders in his conference room last July, while still awaiting more data about the shooting, Gascon gave us his tentative conclusion: The officers were “not prosecutable.”
- He cited the Supreme Court: “The ‘reasonableness’ of a particular force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”
- He mentioned California’s Police Officers’ Bill of Rights that prohibits considering an officer’s past misconduct as part of the investigation. (This is relevant because, in a 2009 incident, both officers who killed Amilcar were charged in civil court for police brutality. As usually happens, that case was settled out of court. In another incident in 2004, according to the family’s lawsuit, one of the officers, while working as a hotel security guard, brutally beat a man unconscious in an elevator. This fact was known to SFPD when they hired him.)
- Finally, the DA said he’s required to convince all twelve members of a jury that the officers are guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” a high burden of proof requiring each juror to be 99.9% convinced the officers are guilty as charged.
In other words, the system is rigged to cover the police. We know this.
Sadly, that system will never change unless DAs like Gascon summon the courage to bring these cases to court where we can consider all the evidence and eyewitness testimony in the light of day.
The double standard
When civilians commit minor offenses, both the criminal justice system and the DA routinely respond harshly. In one recent incident, the DA tried to send a poor woman to life in prison for trying to steal a San Francisco supervisor’s cell phone. And in my neighborhood, a young Latino committing a crime that normally warrants a three-year sentence can be tried and sentenced to 50 years. Such swift and severe applications of the law have torn apart too many families and destroyed too many lives.
By contrast, an officer who kills a young Latino is given a two-week paid vacation, then returned to regular duties before the whole matter is quietly forgotten. Rather than being held to a higher standard, the officer is given a pass.
The contrast could not be clearer, nor the question more urgent: Why should a poor person or a young Latino committing relatively minor crimes be punished so severely when an officer who kills a young Latino is not even brought to trial? If the law is applied so harshly in one instance, why not the other?
The community waits and watches
The DA’s decision in Amilcar’s case is expected soon. Will he have the political and moral will to bring this case–and those of Mario Woods, Luis Gongora Pat, Jessica Williams, and many other police victims–to trial? We are waiting and watching.
Father John Smith is rector of St. John the Evangelist Church in the Mission