The family of Alejandro Nieto, the 28-year-old City College student and community activist who was gunned down by the San Francisco Police Department March 21, has filed a claim against the city in preparation for a lawsuit responding to what they allege was an unjustified shooting.
Friends, family and supporters of Nieto gathered in front of San Francisco City Hall April 14 with attorney John Burris, who is representing Nieto’s family. Burris is a prominent civil rights lawyer known for representing families whose sons have died as a result of officer involved shootings, including the family of Oscar Grant.
An initial examination of the body suggests Nieto died from wounds inflicted by at least 10 bullets, fired by multiple officers, Burris said. Police initially encountered Nieto in Bernal Heights Park in response to a 911 call reporting a man with a gun. Nieto, who was employed full-time as a security guard, actually possessed a Taser and not a firearm. Police said officers opened fire because he pointed the Taser at them, and they confused it with a gun when they saw a red dot emitted from the device after it was drawn, tracking officers.
Burris isn’t buying the police department's account, but said he faces obstacles obtaining key information that would shed light on the incident.
“We have not been able to obtain the 911 audio,” or other communications records documenting what happened just before and after the shooting, Burris said. So far, the San Francisco Medical Examiner has not released an official report.
“That is part of the problem we are up against. We can make requests and ask for it to be preserved,” he said of the audio files, “but we cannot get it. And unfortunately, lawsuits are one way that we know we’re going to get it.”
Benjamin Bac Sierra, a friend of Nieto’s who is serving as a spokesperson for the family, waved a bundle of petitions he and community members had collected to call for an investigation at the local level. “Besides filing this claim, the family demands that San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon launch an official investigation into Alex’s killing by the San Francisco Police Department,” Bac Sierra said. “We demand that the district attorney fully investigate this case on behalf of Alex and his family.”
Burris said he believed moving forward with an independent lawsuit was necessary even as the Office of Citizen Complaints, an independent agency overseen by the San Francisco Police Commission, advances its own investigation.
“I’ve worked with the OCC on many cases in the past, but that’s on a parallel track. They have one process, we have another,” he said. “At the end of the day, we have to do our own to protect ourselves.”
Burris also said that given the recent history of federal prosecution against the SFPD, he believed the involvement of the U.S. Attorney’s office would be appropriate. “We’re requesting that the U.S. Attorneys here with the Department of Justice conduct an independent investigation into the circumstances surrounding Alex’s death,” Burris said, “and if necessary, file criminal charges against these officers.”
In a later conversation with the Bay Guardian, Bac Sierra noted that an audio recording of the shooting had been obtained from a neighbor of the park, who captured it through a home security system. Bac Sierra said the recording suggests two shots were initially fired, followed by a pause, followed by "a continuous volley" of shots. Bac Sierra, who declined to provide the neighbor’s name, said the sound file did not contain audible verbal communications prior to the shots being fired.
Community members angered by Nieto’s death have set up a website, justice4alexnieto.org, and have planned an event for the one-month anniversary of the shooting. Called Burritos on Bernal Hill, the gathering is scheduled for Monday, April 21, at Precita Park at 5pm.