Two San Francisco police officers who fired 43 bullets at a 28-year-old man in a city park two years ago testified in federal court Wednesday they believed they were in imminent danger at the time.
Lt. Jason Sawyer and Officer Richard Schiff were the first witnesses called to the stand by lawyers for Elvira and Refugio Nieto, the parents of Alejandro “Alex” Nieto, in the trial of their wrongful death lawsuit against four officers.
Nieto, who was carrying a Taser stun gun, was killed at Bernal Heights Park on the evening of March 21, 2014, in a hail of 59 bullets fired by Sawyer, Schiff and two other officers in 30 seconds.
The officers, who were responding to a report of a man with a gun, say they believed Nieto’s device was a gun and that he was pointing it at them from about 25 or 30 yards away.
Schiff told the civil jury in the court of U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins at the Federal Building in San Francisco:
“He [Nieto] drew a gun and pointed it at me. … I was in fear for my life, the life of my partner and the life of any one else who might have come to respond to the call.”
Sawyer, who followed Schiff to the stand, testified:
“I had no doubt that it was a gun. I believed he was intending to shoot us.”
Schiff, a recent recruit who had been on the force for about two months, and Sawyer, then a sergeant who was supervising Schiff, were the first officers to respond. They fired the majority of the shots: 23 from Schiff’s gun and 20 from Sawyer’s.
Officers Roger Morse and Nathan Chew had arrived as backup and fired 11 and five shots respectively during the 30-second incident.
The parents contend there was no justification for the killing. In addition to wrongful death, their lawsuit includes claims of unconstitutional excessive force and loss of familial relationship.
Their lawyer, Adante Pointer, told jurors at the opening of the trial Tuesday that he will call a witness who was at the park and who will testify that Nieto’s hands were in his pockets and that he didn’t see him carrying an object.
City lawyers representing the officers have questioned whether that witness had a clear view from his location on a hillside path 25 yards away.
Schiff and Sawyer gave their accounts of the shooting under questioning first from Pointer and then from lawyers from the City Attorney’s Office.
Both testified that when they saw Nieto walking down an access road, they got out of their patrol car 25 to 30 yards away and both shouted, “Show me your hands.” They said Nieto then said, “No, you show me your hands.”
“That’s when he went for the gun,” Schiff testified. He said Nieto’s response “showed me he was not willing to comply.”
Pointer questioned the officers about why they hadn’t used their patrol car megaphone to call out to Nieto and why they asked him to show his hands if, as they allege, his hands were already out of his pockets.
Schiff answered that one of Nieto’s hands was near his holster.
Pointer noted that Schiff’s father is a member of the police force and asked, “Wouldn’t you be embarrassed if you killed a person with no justification for using deadly force?” “Absolutely,” Schiff answered.
The attorney continued, “Doesn’t that give a justification for concocting a story?” “Absolutely not,” the officer responded.
The trial continues on Thursday with testimony from the other two officers and the park visitor who called 911 because he believed Nieto was carrying a gun.
Nieto, who lived near the park, had a night job as a security guard at a local nightclub. He had eaten a burrito at the park and was planning to go to his job when he was shot, according to the family’s lawyers. The parents’ lawsuit asks the jury to award unspecified financial compensation.
The trial is expected to end next week.