The parents of a 20-year-old Guatemalan man who was fatally shot by plainclothes San Francisco police officers in the Mission in February filed a federal complaint Friday alleging police used excessive force.
The complaint filed in U.S. District Court alleges the officers used excessive force when they shot Amilcar Perez Lopez six times from behind on Feb. 26. It names San Francisco police officers Eric Reboldi and Craig Tiffe as well as police Chief Greg Suhr, the city of San Francisco and the San Francisco Police Department, as plaintiffs.
In particular, the lawsuit seeks to rebut statements by San Francisco police Chief Greg Suhr following the shooting, in which he said that Perez Lopez charged at the officers with a knife over his head and was shot by officers from the front, rather than from behind.
The family’s attorney, Arnoldo Casillas, said the family had carried out an independent investigation and autopsy.
The autopsy, conducted by a member of the Sonoma County coroner’s office, determined that Perez Lopez was shot once in the rear of his head, once in the rear of his arm and four times in the back, according to Casillas:
“Someone charging you with a knife held high doesn’t get shot in the back of the head.”
Casillas said that Perez Lopez was a victim of police brutality and called his death an “unjustified homicide.” According to the complaint, not only did the officers use excessive force and unreasonable seizure, but Suhr, the police department, and the city are responsible for failing to properly train, supervise and discipline officers Tiffe and Reboldi.
Both officers were named in a 2009 federal lawsuit that alleged they beat a man in the head with a baton, causing him to bleed profusely. The lawsuit was resolved with a settlement.
In addition, the complaint alleges that Reboldi beat a man unconscious in 2004 while working as a security guard at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.
The plaintiffs in the complaint, parents Margarita Lopez Perez and Juan Perez, who live in Guatemala, participated in a press conference with their lawyers today in San Francisco via Skype.
The couple said they just want justice for their son. They told the press in Spanish that they never thought their son would be killed by police officers when they sent him to live in the U.S.
Perez Lopez grew up in Guatemala and had relocated to San Francisco, where he landed a job in construction. He resided in the Mission District, prior to his death, and sent money home to Guatemala to help his family.
Casillas said if this type of death was an isolated event, it might be forgivable, but he described the shooting as just the latest in a string of cases where men of color are stripped of their constitutional rights.
Casillas said the intentions of the complaint and subsequent lawsuit are to reveal the truth about what happened on February 26, around 9:45 p.m. when Perez Lopez was fatally shot on Folsom Street between 24th and 25th streets.
He demanded that police Chief Suhr, “recant the false line he has been perpetuating” about what happened that day.
According to Suhr, Perez Lopez lunged at an officer, prompting one officer to fire five shots and a second officer to fire a single shot, in defense of their lives.
Police allege that the two officers drew their firearms and ordered the suspect to drop the knife. The officers, who police said had their department issued stars visible on their clothes, fired at Perez Lopez.
He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Police allege that Perez-Lopez was armed with a knife and attempting to rob a man of his bicycle when the officers intervened.
At a town hall meeting following the completion of the autopsy by the San Francisco medical examiner’s office, Suhr said officers shot at Lopez from about five to six feet away while he was standing on the sidewalk.
Suhr said that officers exited their vehicles and saw Lopez on the sidewalk moving toward them, away from the street when they shot him.
However, photographs taken by a neighbor following the shooting show Perez Lopez lying motionless in the street, not on the sidewalk.
The family’s attorney states that Perez Lopez was trying to run away from the officers, which is why their bullets entered him from behind.
In addition, Casillas said three eyewitnesses saw the entire shooting.
According to the witnesses, plainclothes officers did not identify themselves when they got on scene. They saw one of the officers put Perez Lopez in a bear hug before Perez Lopez broke free. They then hear the metal knife fall to the ground before hearing shots fired.
Casillas said this is a “blatant, shocking example of what everyone fears,” which is that when there is an officer-involved shooting the physical evidence will be ignored.
Casillas asked today:
“How’s Chief Suhr going to explain this?”
He said any jury, any member of the media, anyone who sees photographs of Perez Lopez’ body can easily tell that there are small round wounds in the back of his body from bullets entering and large wounds on the front of his body where the bullets exited.
Casillas said he has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct an independent investigation, because “no one expects the District Attorney’s office to bring charges” against the officers.
Attorney Jonathan Melrod, who is also representing the family, alleged police are targeting black and brown people across the country and that San Francisco is no different.
Melrod recalled the ongoing investigation and pending lawsuit against the police department in the fatal shooting of Alex Nieto, who was shot atop Bernal Hill while possession of a stun gun, and whose parents were in attendance at the press conference Friday.
Earlier this month, Suhr recommended that seven of 13 police officers discovered to have partaken in inappropriate, and often racist and homophobic text messages, be fired from the police department.
In addition, the Federal Bureau of Investigation launched an inquiry earlier this month into allegations that San Francisco sheriff’s deputies forced county jail inmates to fight gladiator-style and bet on the outcomes.
Additional acts of alleged violence by San Francisco police officers have also surfaced in recent months, including a February 2015 video of an officer kicking a homeless man sleeping on a public bus, a January 2015 video of an officer attempting to shove a man disabled man out of a wheelchair into the street.
Melrod said this violent behavior by officers is leading to a “systemic distrust of the police.”