San Francisco police on trial, at last

By Alicia Vargas

On a quiet Friday afternoon, Alex Nieto climbed to the top of Bernal Hill in San Francisco to eat a burrito before heading to work. He ended up shot and killed by San Francisco police.

The details of what went down that day in 2014 differ depending on who you talk to, but on this rare occasion, a group of jurors will be the ones to weigh the evidence and decide what happened. Nieto’s family sued the city for excessive use of force, and the case goes to trial March 1.

“This upcoming trial is very important because we usually do not get a trial. Many times they’re [the cases] are thrown out and the police are found to be justified,” said Benjamin Bac Sierra, a friend of Nieto’s and author of a screenplay about Nieto’s death.

Police brutality has been at the forefront of the national conversation recently. Between 2000 and 2014, San Francisco police were involved in 97 shootings — 33 that resulted in death. In each fatal case, SFPD and the city attorney found the officer used deadly force.

This has created a reputation of impunity and distrust for police among many citizens of San Francisco. Recently, the shooting death of Mario Woods generated further public outrage after widely-circulated videos showed police surrounding Woods. His autopsy revealed 20 gunshot wounds. The incident prompted calls for Police Chief Greg Suhr’s resignation.

To make matters worse, an investigation independent of the SFPD can only happen if somebody files a civil lawsuit. In Nieto’s case, the District Attorney declined to press charges, but the civil suit is pushing forward.

District Attorney George Gascón said of the Nieto shooting: “It is clearly constitutional, and I’m not sure there is much that could have been done to prevent it.”

But a film, “Lowrider Lawyers: Putting A City on Trial,” shows a different side from the DA’s report. It provides a glimpse of the evidence that will be presented in federal court.

The media hasn’t reported on many of the depositions filed in the lawsuit against the city, but the movie shows many of them. It includes perspectives from a Taser expert, a dog owner, and a person who stood 20 feet from the incident.

In the film, the depositions are brought to life through actors playing the roles of the witnesses and experts, using the actual testimonies. The attorneys and judge responding to the evidence give fictionalized responses, and are played by Bac Sierra and other community members.

The police’s version of events suggests Nieto was acting aggressively: he brandished a weapon at a dog being walked on the hill.

But in the deposition, the dog owner said Nieto stood on a bench to escape his dog, which was let off leash. His large Siberian Husky was pursuing Nieto for his burrito. The dog owner said Nieto pointed a weapon at his dog and was able to tell that Nieto was holding a Taser, not a gun.

Nieto carried a Taser with him because he was employed as a security guard for Toro, a San Francisco bar and nightclub.

The police were dispatched after a hiker called 9–1–1 and said that somebody that appeared to be a gang member had a gun at the top of the hill. In the police’s version of events, the officers told Nieto to drop his weapon and raise his hands. Nieto, the police account says, “squared off in a defensive stance” and pointed a weapon at them. Police believed it was a gun because it was emanating a red laser muzzle flash that they claim was tracking them.

The expert from the Taser company testified that Tasers don’t create a muzzle flash, or reproduce any of the other characteristics of a firearm.

The eyewitness testimony also contradicts this version. Witness Antonio Theodore, who was on Bernal Hill at the time, testified that he never saw Alex Nieto’s hands leave his jacket pockets. He only heard one officer to the right of Nieto yell “Stop” and pause for about a second before shooting.

If a decision that differs from the police investigation is reached, the civil federal case hearing could make history for police violence cases in San Francisco, and, possibly, the nation.