San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon announced his office will not be filing charges against the four San Francisco police officers who shot and killed 28-year-old Alejandro “Alex” Nieto in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood in March 2014.
In a letter to San Francisco police Chief Greg Suhr dated Thursday, Gascon states that, after a thorough investigation and careful review of the evidence, his office concluded:
“… the officers were acting lawfully in self-defense and in defense of others when they discharged their weapons at Mr. Nieto after he drew and pointed a weapon which the officers reasonably believed to be a firearm.”
The weapon was later determined to be a Taser stun gun, but from where the four officers stood, 90 feet away, they were unable to differentiate it from a firearm, Gascon said. Gascon said today that he recognizes that Nieto’s death was a tragedy and has offered to meet with Nieto’s family members, but that they have so far declined to meet with him.
While the district attorney’s office has concluded that the police officers believed they were in imminent danger when they discharged their weapon, Gascon wrote in his letter to the chief of police that his office did not examine issues such as compliance with the policies and procedures of the San Francisco Police Department or ways to improve training or tactics.
The letter also does not address any issues related to civil liability. Gascon has also recommended the case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for further investigation. A lawsuit filed on behalf of the Nieto family against The City for violation of Nieto’s civil rights, on the grounds that police officers allegedly used excessive force against him, is pending.
At a rally outside the district attorney’s office at the San Francisco Hall of Justice today, Ben Bac Sierra, an English professor at City College of San Francisco and a friend of Nieto’s prior to his death, said the decision not to file charges is insulting to him, and to Nieto’s family.
He said there is an inherent conflict of interest in allowing Gascon, a former chief of police in San Francisco from 2009 to 2011 to lead an investigation into an officer-involved shooting.
Bac Sierra said Nieto’s parents want to know why officers fired 59 shots at their son:
“San Francisco police knew they had killed an innocent man.”
Adriana Camarena, a civil rights activist and artist, also spoke outside Gascon’s office today, saying that the autopsy showed that multiple bullets entered the top of Nieto’s head, indicating that officers continued to shoot him once he was down.
According to San Francisco police spokesman Officer Albie Esparza, the four members of the San Francisco Police Department involved in the shooting were Sgt. Jason Sawyer, Officer Roger Morse, Officer Richard Schiff and Officer Nathan Chew.
The release of the names of the officers involved in the shooting came after numerous protests by the public demanding the officers’ names be released and a court order in December, issued by Federal Magistrate Judge Nathaniel Cousins, requiring the release of the names of the officers in the civil rights lawsuit.
The San Francisco medical examiner’s office released the full autopsy report of Nieto’s death in September, following mounting public pressure to do so. The autopsy confirmed that Nieto suffered as many as 15 gunshot wounds from as few as ten bullets.
The medical examiner’s office also included medical records from San Francisco General Hospital that, according to the autopsy, “revealed a history of aggressive and bizarre behavior, auditory hallucinations,” as well as Nieto’s noncompliance to prescriptions for two atypical anti-psychotic drugs.
The medical examiner’s office reported traces of cannabinoids in Nieto’s system at his time of death and no trace of anti-psychotic medications. Nieto, a San Francisco native who lived on Cortland Avenue in the Bernal Heights neighborhood, was a security guard who attended City College of San Francisco.
Bac Sierra said his friend was an incredible person who volunteered for numerous programs and political campaigns. He reportedly had aspirations of becoming a probation officer.
In the week following the fatal shooting, San Francisco police Chief Greg Suhr gave an account of the incident at a town hall meeting. He said that a 911 call came in to police at 7:11 p.m. on Mar. 21 reporting a man at Bernal Heights Park wearing a bright red jacket with what looked like a black handgun on his hip who was pacing by a chain link fence near a bench.
The caller described a man with his hand resting on what looked like a gun. Officers arrived at the park within minutes and encountered Nieto with what they believed to be a gun in a holster, Suhr said. According to Gascon, the investigation revealed that Nieto was standing about 90 feet away from the police officers when the shooting occurred.
According to Suhr, when police asked Nieto to show his hands, he said, “You need to show your hands.” Suhr said Nieto pointed his weapon at several officers, prompting them to fire 59 gunshots at him from 90 feet away. Nieto was pronounced dead at the scene.
Suhr said following the shooting:
“They fired in defense of their own lives.”
Suhr said the officers thought Nieto had a firearm in his possession. However, it was determined following the shooting that because of mental health issues, Nieto was prohibited from legally owning a gun, and that he had only a Taser stun gun on him at the time of the incident.
Suhr said officers could have misconstrued the stun gun as a real gun. The autopsy report also describes the case history, stating that based on interviews with officers at the scene, Nieto “reportedly brandished and discharged a Taser at the officers” who shot him. A
ccording to Gascon, the investigation revealed that after Nieto was shot and officers approached him, he was unresponsive. The officers kicked the Taser out of his hand, handcuffed him and then check his vitals. He was declared deceased at the scene.