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Monday, October 25, 2021

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News + PoliticsDA closes Amilcar Lopez case, but the community trauma still remains

DA closes Amilcar Lopez case, but the community trauma still remains

San Francisco needs to make big changes in policing so this young immigrant didn't die in vain.

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San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin has reviewed and reaffirmed his predecessor’s decision not to charge the two white SFPD officers who killed Amilcar Perez Lopez by firing six bullets to his back. After six long years, the legal process has finally ended, and has come up woefully short. The problem says less about DA Boudin and more about the corrupt legal system he has inherited and is trying to fix.

While the decision allows the two officers to walk freely, it neither exonerates them nor resolves many lingering questions. But nor does it ease the trauma that Amilcar’s family and the San Francisco Mission community still carry from this and similar horrific tragedies.

The Perez Lopez family in Guatemala. The sign says “We, the Perez Lopez family, demand that the assassination of our son, assassinated 2/26/2015 by the San Francisco police, be explained.”

I am no legal expert. For those of us hoping to end police violence, perhaps this decision, disappointing as it is, is the best our legal system can deliver. After so many delays, the statutes of limitations on all possible charges except murder have expired, and, under the circumstances, murder is almost impossible to prove in court. Moreover, correcting a previous DA’s rigged investigation, and then developing a more adequate court case for a jury to consider, can be formidable for even the best legal minds. Given a law enforcement system designed to shelter brutal officers, this may be the best any DA can do.

But from a moral standpoint, it is a complete failure by law enforcement, a stain on San Francisco’s collective conscience. When it comes to holding officers accountable to such cherished values as the sacredness of life and the dignity of every person, our law enforcement system is apparently not up to the task.

A quick review of a few known facts can show you what I mean.

The police version

On the night of February 26, 2015, police were called to break up a fight between Amilcar and a neighbor who had allegedly stolen his phone. As official time stamps show, within just a few short seconds after officers received the dispatcher’s call, Amilcar was face down in a pool of blood. No time for adequately assessing the situation, certainly no time for de-escalation. 

Especially appalling: When exiting their unmarked car, one of the two officers left all his less lethal weapons—his billy club, his pepper spray— in the car, pursuing Amilcar with only a gun. A brutal outcome was all but determined.

Police say Amilcar lunged at one of the officers with a knife and they fired back in self-defense. But then an independent medical report showed all the bullets had landed in the back of Amilcar’s body. If the officers had fired at him directly as they had reported, how did the bullets end up in his back?

SFPD changed their story. Their revised version? After the officers fired their guns, but before the bullets actually struck him, Amilcar turned and ran into the street—faster than a speeding bullet apparently— where he collapsed. 

To this day, the police claim this is how the bullets landed in Amilcar’s back. Even the contortions by the previous DA fail to explain just how those bullets ended up in Amilcar’s back.

To put this in context, consider Amilcar’s story.

“Mica”

The eldest of five kids from rural Guatemala, Amilcar headed north seeking a job to help pull his family out of poverty. Navigating the perilous borders by himself, the 17-year-old eventually landed in San Francisco’s Mission District, rented a cot in a boiler room for $300 per month, and took jobs in local restaurants and construction. He was a practical joker to his friends who called him Mica. Neighborhood elders chuckled with him on their way to the corner market, laughing at the playful nicknames he loved to give them. 

Amilcar worked hard, sometimes 20-hour shifts. Any given paycheck might mean a toy car for his little brother or some small gift for his mom. Just prior to his death, he had proudly sent his family enough to buy electricity and clean running water for their home, impressive accomplishments for a young boy.

Like so many other police victims, this hardworking young immigrant who had no previous encounters with the law simply did not deserve to die. His death leaves a family and communities both here and in Guatemala still traumatized and grieving. 

Sadly, none of us can heal ourselves of this trauma by ourselves. We need the community to step in if we are ever to arrive at the needed closure. More specifically, the city has some moral homework to do.

Given the DA’s decision and the system’s failure, what steps must we as a city take to find our moral bearing and begin healing the trauma this incident has caused?

Moral wisdom from mom’s kitchen table

The good news: We need look no further than the kitchen table wisdom our moms gave us to figure out the moral requirements here. The bad news: We can’t be naïve. Given the present level of corruption in the system, the task will be neither quick nor easy.

Tell the truth. In post-apartheid South Africa, Archbishop Tutu sought his country’s healing by establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission where perpetrators of racial cruelty could acknowledge their wrongs and restore their relationships with their victims’ families and communities. But notice the sequence of words: Truth first, then reconciliation. Only when the truth is clearly stated can a community know what, if anything, needs forgiving. Only then is genuine reconciliation and healing possible.

For SFPD, telling the truth has been, shall we say, a challenge. I’ve already mentioned the discrepancies in the initial reports to the community about Amilcar’s killing. In addition, a trove of 3,000 pages of documentation later obtained with the help of recent California legislation raises still more suspicions about Amilcar’s death and the official reports that followed. Sadly, with the case now closed, we’ll never know the full story.

But the problem lies not only with inaccurate police reports. We the public have been too willing to believe them. “Amilcar must have done something wrong,” the default logic runs, “or surely the police would never have killed him.” As with women who are raped or children who are abused, the victims of police brutality are often the ones who get blamed for their own deaths.

This victim-blaming, abetted by the police themselves who invariably try to discredit their victim as if to somehow justify what they did to him, inflicts yet another wound on families and communities. This victim blaming only deepens the pain of a family already broken by grief. It enables those who can avoid such brutality because of their own skin color to wrongly conclude they are somehow more virtuous. And, finally, perhaps worst of all, it blocks us all from seeing the truth and coming to terms with the longstanding racism of a profession that is now deeply discredited for good reason.

If there is to be healing of the trauma and grief, we have to say the truth out loud: The firing of six bullets into the back of a young immigrant is wrong. And say this, too: The failure to hold the perpetrating officers accountable is also wrong. 

This case and others like it should have been brought to trial where all the evidence and testimony could have been evaluated in the light of day by a jury who could then reach a decision. Were the system not notoriously rigged to cover up police brutality, this case might have actually seen a fair trial.

Apologize. You don’t need to have pulled the trigger to be implicated in such brutal police killings. Intentionally or not, our city used our tax dollars to recruit, hire, train, equip, discipline, promote, and pay lucrative salaries to these same officers to represent us on the street. What these officers have done falls on all of us collectively.

In addition to naming the wrong, we also need to own our complicity in it whether direct or indirect, express our remorse, and set about restoring our relationship with the victims, their families, and communities. This task falls not only on the offending officers but also on the city as a whole, especially on our elected officials.

Sadly, in no case to date has the city acknowledged any wrongdoing or apologized in any police killing. Time for a change.

Stop the brutality. A no-brainer: For any apology to be serious, SFPD needs to stop the brutality that ruptured their relationship to these families and communities in the first place. This crisis is not simply a matter of a few bad apples on the police force. Nor is it a matter of who happens to be sitting in the DA’s chair. It’s not simply individuals who must change; it’s also the laws, court decisions, office protocols, policies, and overall police culture.

How has SFPD done recently? Although, after much public outcry, use of force by officers went down across the city, it actually went up in the Mission despite no corresponding uptick in crime. As Mission Local reports, officers in this largely Latino Mission District “continue to be flagged more often than any others for potential misconduct.” None of this bodes well for other young Latinos like Amilcar.

As the growing nationwide consensus demands, we need to reallocate the exorbitant amounts now spent on policing to other, more appropriate service providers such as homeless advocates, mental health experts, and drug rehabilitation counselors. This will not only dispatch the more appropriate service providers to the scene, but also limit the opportunities for police to use unnecessary force.

Finally, we recall in 2016, after a string of local police killings, the Department of Justice handed SFPD 272 recommendations for reform. By nearly everyone’s standards, SFPD’s implementation of those reforms has been inexcusably slow. We need the city and the department to finally step up when it comes to these and many other needed reforms.

Repair the damage.  How do we compensate grieving parents for the death of a son or daughter when no one can take that child’s place, when no monetary settlement could even begin to fill the void?

The task becomes even more daunting once we realize that police violence affects not only individuals and families but entire communities. Repair is needed at both the individual and the community levels.

Amilcar’s killing arose out of a long history of poverty, inequality, racism, and, in particular, bigotry toward immigrants. Latinx and other youth of color are routinely deprived of the education, mental health services, jobs, housing, and other tools they need to thrive. Then, in those rare moments when their young lives understandably go sideways, these same youths are blamed and punished, sometimes fatally on the street by cops. To repair the damage, we need to address these underlying social and economic injustices.

At the more individual and familial level, of course, true reparation is not always straightforward. If I steal $25 from you, the obvious moral requirement is to pay you back. But when police brutally kill a child, such straightforward reparation is, sadly, not possible.

But while we can’t adequately compensate them for their loss, we may be able to meet other legitimate needs traumatized and grieving loved ones may have. Some may need help with funeral costs, mental health services, or compensation for bereavement time off work. Some who choose to testify against the police may need protection from police retaliation. The victim’s children may need special help in school as they recover from the trauma.

To his credit, the present DA has already taken steps to shore up some of the services available to victims and grieving families.

Don’t let our kids die in vain. On a deeper level, many families simply want some assurance their child did not die in vain, that his or her death, like that of George Floyd on a grander scale, was at least a catalyst for change. Knowing their child’s death means other young people might someday live without fear of police violence can be an important part of a family’s healing.

We at least owe Amilcar’s family this much, that his death not be in vain. His brutal death must fuel our work for change. We have no choice. As things presently stand, the risk of losing another of our kids to senseless police violence is simply too great.

Father Richard Smith, Ph.D. is a priest associate at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in the Mission. His doctorate is in Ethics and Social Theory from the Graduate Theological Union in conjunction with UC Berkeley

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1 COMMENT

  1. This explains why POA is trying to recall Boudin. The previous DA covered up an obvious murder by police. It stayed buried for six years until it was all but impossible to prosecute. I am disappointed that Boudin did not file murder charges, but I can understand.

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