The parents of 28-year old Alex Nieto are tired of police refusing to release information explaining why their son was killed by San Francisco police on March 21, 2014. “The police have been stonewalling us by withholding basic information. It can only be considered a cover up,” family attorney Adante Pointer told me.
It’s true. The police have not released a witness list, not released a pertinent 911 call, not released the police reports and not released the names of officers involved.
This makes an independent investigation impossible. As a result, Pointer filed a federal wrongful death civil lawsuit in August that would require police to stop withholding pertinent information.
“Alex’s community deserves to know who killed him. Officers are public servants, not a secret force in a neighborhood,” community activist Adriana Camarena emphasized to me.
Nobody is interested in where they live or other private personal information “but we do want to know their record of interaction with the community and their role in the homicide of Alex Nieto.”
Police accountability begins with transparency, she added.
Naming the officers involved is truly extremely relevant. For example, the named chokehold murderer of Eric Garner had two recent civil rights lawsuits filed against him – according to a CNN legal analyst, one was settled by the city for $30,000 in 2013 and the other is still pending.
Fortunately, a Dec. 3 “Justice for Alex” community picket line at San Francisco’s Federal Courthouse received their first good news when a judge agreed with the family by denying a request from the City for an unusually restrictive protective order that would further conceal from the public the names of all officers at the homicide scene.
Attorney Pointer expects the police to resort to delaying legal procedures but the family will not stop, he says, until the relevant information is made public.
Nieto was surrounded by a small army of police officers and met with a hail of bullets while walking down a hill after treating himself to an early evening sunset dinner while leisurely sitting on a neighborhood park bench.
Supporters insist there is absolutely no evidence Alex posed any threat. He was dressed for his security guard shift and just about to leave for his job when his body was riddled by 15 bullet wounds in two separate volleys.
Police Chief Greg Suhr explained at a Town Hall meeting in late March that Alex was first shot down to the ground but still alive. Only then did officers release the fatal second volley of shots.
The Medical Examiner’s autopsy report also states that eleven out of the fifteen bullet wounds are downward trajectory shots.
Supporter’s believe, therefore, that the four upward trajectory wounds were the first to be delivered by officer’s facing uphill where Alex was located, whereas the second round of shots are all fired in a downward trajectory when Alex would have been on the ground, wounded and defenseless.
Clearly, the family deserves an explanation.
Does Alex Fit the Police Profile of an Aggressor?
Nieto was a well-regarded Latino community organizer who very publicly urged peaceful resolution of conflicts to troubled neighborhood youth consistent with his Buddhist beliefs and practices.
“Alex was humble and peaceful and wanted to be one with everyone. He sure helped me when I was going through my teenage troublemaking episodes,” his good friend and fellow Buddhist Ely Flores recalled.
Given Alex’s character, police claims that he was the aggressor has shocked the Latino community who “are also up in arms over police mistreatment of the family,” as attorney Pointer describes.
For example, Alex’s parents were not informed of his death until the next day and only after being interrogated by police who also wanted to search their home without a warrant. The parents refused to allow the search but were peppered by numerous personal questions about Alex until they were rather summarily informed at the last moment that their son was dead.
Ignoring the family once again, police officers on the following day used the keys taken from Alex’s body to drive away with his car, without notifying the family and without a warrant. They stripped searched the vehicle and took Alex’s iPad, returning the damaged property only after community up roar at the Town Hall meeting in March.
Such callous disregard for the family has not gone down well and, along with the stonewalling of vital information, explains widespread community suspicions.
Class, Race & Excessive Force
There is an alternative to the police scenario painting Nieto as the aggressor. It is a storyline where, once again, the toxic triad of race, class and excessive force seems to have colluded.
For example, Alex’s Bernal Heights’ neighborhood is changing rapidly and considerably. Redfin, a national real estate brokerage firm, just voted it the number one sought-after neighborhood in the entire country.
Formerly part of the working-class Latino district of San Francisco, millionaires are rapidly buying up properties.
Did a young, large, working class Latino man eating his dinner on the hills of Bernal Heights, with one of the most “sought-after” city views in the nation, stand out as a troubling figure for the so-far anonymous 911 caller?
This is not so far-fetched.
Episcopal priest, Father Richard Smith, Ph.D., serves the neighborhood Latino community and has seen these forces at work. What I am seeing is eerily similar to what I saw during my recent visit to Ferguson, he told me.
And, he added, just as with Michael Brown, San Francisco police released misleading information on Alex’s character even as they refused to disclose information on the officers involved.
But there are also some factors distinct to San Francisco where “displacement and gentrification is a big deal,” he said. “For example, I have seen police ramp up their presence and hassle and shoo away impoverished residents from public spaces that are currently being considered for big condominium developments.”
Bernal Heights is at the center of these changes. It is ground zero for displacement and gentrification. Perhaps traditional Latino residents of Bernal Heights like Alex now stand out as suspicious troublemakers to be shooed away.
Police Version Doesn’t Add Up
Did the police also rush to judgment when they came upon Alex who was dressed for work as a security guard with his holstered and licensed Taser? Why didn’t the police see the Taser’s distinctive black and yellow coloring?
Police dispatch informed officers to look for a man with a holstered weapon “at his hip” who is “eating sunflower seeds or chips.” The Taser is never described as drawn, nor Alex as threatening.
Police claim they never saw the Taser’s labeled coloring. Well, the bright coloring on the Taser would certainly have been more difficult for the police to see from their reported 75 feet distance, if the Taser was indeed holstered.
This is precisely the witness testimony in the family lawsuit – Alex at no time posed a threat according to this witness. He at no time took the Taser from his holster, at no time pointed it at police and at no time made any move to grab it.
Of course, pointing a Taser at dozens of police aiming guns at you would have not only been truly irrational but also out of character for Alex. In addition, a Taser is only effective within 15 feet and the police claim to have fired their first rounds at 75 feet.
It doesn’t make any sense.
Civil Rights’ attorney Pointer doesn’t expect police misconduct to change anytime soon. This makes more sense.
There are ingrained and deeply entrenched race and class prejudices that permeate our whole society. More than personal change is required such behavioral training of individual cops and cameras on their chest.
One such institutional transformation that hopefully makes it into the very important national conversation would be Black and Latino community control of police in their communities. Local democratically elected boards would replace downtown control by the 1% establishment.
It’s a revival of a still very relevant idea from the Black Panther Party platform of the 1960s.
In the meantime, Pointer tells me, “I don’t want anyone to be above the law, police included.”
Carl Finamore is a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org