Police Killing Inflames San Francisco Community, Revealing Further Divides

San Francisco, Calif. – A police shooting of a 28-year-old man in San Francisco last Friday has left the city divided, angry and uncertain over the fast-changing social and economic landscape of the Bay Area. On Tuesday, frustration boiled over at a community meeting led by San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr after he argued that the officers who shot Alejandro Nieto had “fired in defense of their lives.”

The latest police-related violence to hit the Bay Area, last week’s shooting and its fallout have residents – especially the non-white community that has long called the Mission District home – fearful of the future.

“We’ve been here before,” said Dario Gomez, an immigrant who moved into the Mission neighborhood 12 years ago, and says he has long faced discrimination from the men in blue. “This is nothing new and the police arguments that Ale was a threat or posed danger is simply not true.”

“Police know that young people go up to Bernal Hill to release anger and get away from their troubles,” Gomez added. “To be shot there is just a wrong and this is murder.”

But Police Chief Suhr argued differently, saying that officers responded to calls from area residents who claimed Nieto had a gun and was waving it around as he sat on Bernal Hill, a short walk from the Mission district.

The police account laid forth in the meeting was confusing, in which officers claimed they responded with numerous shots at Nieto when the young man allegedly reached for his holster, which carried a well-marked taser. Nieto was in possession of the taser due to his job as a security guard at a local bar and nightclub.

Suhr said the “officers approached [Nieto] with the information, triangulating around him as is protocol with armed suspects.”

According to the police chief, when officers called out to Nieto to show his hands, the man reportedly pulled out the taser, which has a red target laser similar to those displayed by firearms. The officers then opened fire.

While police have not released information about the number of bullets that were fired, witnesses say Nieto was shot more than 14 times.

Grieving friends, family and community members are now questioning how a squad of trained police officers could have mistaken a taser for a gun.

“This is a travesty,” Benjamin Bac Sierra, Nieto’s friend and former English professor at City College of San Francisco, told the San Francisco Chronicle at the meeting. “He was not bothering anyone. There is no justification whatsoever – whatsoever – for him to be massacred with 14 bullet holes.”

In the week since the killing, many have questioned the police account and the way that Nieto was treated as a “threat,” even as he ate a sandwich and air-boxed, a visible sign of releasing tension. Suhr alluded to Nieto’s mental health saying the man could not own a gun “for mental health reasons,” which sparked outrage from the crowd.

A Mission District community organizer, Roberto Hernandez, told the audience on Tuesday that mental health questions should not be taken as a justification for murder and being shot multiple times. He pointed out that when he was younger, he and his friends also found solace running up Bernal Hill to get away from their problems.

“It hurts that the first thing to come out was that he had mental health problems,” Hernandez said. “If that would have been me up on the hill, screaming and yelling, you would have gotten a lot more calls than that.”

The SF Police Department would not comment on the investigation when Occupy.com asked for a statement on the shooting, saying only: “We are currently looking at what happened and the procedures in place in these instances are being dealt with.”

The officers involved in the shooting have been placed on administrative leave as per department policy related to police shootings.

On Monday, a vigil held for Nieto drew scores of friends, family and others who came together to show their grief and express anger at the SFPD. Predominant among them were Latinos and African-Americans – revealing what many at the vigil noted to be an absence of the “new white residents” of neighborhood.

One African-American activist named Omar told Occupy.com he thought it reflected “a sign of the colonial attitude that many new residents have in the area.” He continued, “The white people, unfortunately, do not come out in anger at these things because they are rarely, if ever, the victim of police profiling and violence.”

Others at the vigil demanded that the police officers be brought to justice over the killing of an unarmed man, who was a Buddhist and avid supporter of peace and nonviolence.

“If they knew him and had learned more before opening fire, they would have known he was not a threat. But because he is dark-skinned, he didn’t get that opportunity,” one family member said with tears pouring down her face.

Police maintain that ethnicity had nothing to do with the shooting – and that the officers were only following procedure in what they termed a “defensive” action.

Nieto is the latest in a string of police killings – in addition to beatings and other violent attacks against non-white males – that have inflamed passions in the Bay Area in recent years. The most famous incident, when police shot dead young African-American Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale BART station on New Year’s Day in 2009 – an event that was made into a film which won top awards at Sundance last year– was referenced by some community members at the vigil.

The absence of white people attending the vigil, however, was notable, reinforcing the divide in the community. Occupy.com asked a number of white people seated at local, nearby cafes what they thought about the shooting – and none expressed distrust or frustration over the lethal action taken by police.

“I think this is a situation where a troubled person was up on a hill, threatening others, and had a taser,” said Josie, a 28-year-old web designer. “Why did he pull out the taser? This is a safety issue and we want the police to make sure our safety is where it needs to be.”