Court orders SFPD officers' identities be made public in Alex Nieto slaying

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Yael Chanoff's picture
Drawing of police shooting victim Alex Nieto.
Photocap A judge in the wrongful death lawsuit against the SFPD for the shooting of Alex Nieto has ordered the names of the officers involved must be released. Image courtesy of justice4alexnieto.

By Yael Chanoff

Friends, family and community supporters of Alex Nieto, a 28-year-old Bernal Heights resident who was shot and killed by San Francisco police March 21, gathered in front of the federal building in San Francisco the morning of Dec. 3 with one demand: give us the names.

Eight months since their son’s death at the hands of SFPD officers in the Bernal Hill park, Nieto’s parents still don’t know the names of the police officers who killed him.

“The hardest part is that it’s just like it was in the beginning. We have absolutely no information,” Refugio Nieto, Alex’s father, said at the rally.

But that will change after the decision handed down by Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins. In his Dec. 3 procedural ruling Cousins sided with the Nietos in a procedural ruling related to a civil case brought by the family, ordering the city to release the names of all officers involved.

The development in the Neito case comes as the nation reels from several high profile cases of people being killed by police officers, in which much the public feels justice has been obfuscated. The total lack of transparency in the Nieto case has contributed to the view that police officials favor protecting individual officers and the reputation of their department over holding a fair and open handling of misconduct cases. 

According to SFPD, Nieto was confronted by SFPD and shot multiple times after they mistook a Taser, that Nieto carried legally as part of his security job, as a handgun.

SFPD has alleged that Nieto drew the Taser in a confrontation with police, but friends and family say that this does not match the behavior of a young man who was a practicing Buddhist and studying for a career in criminal justice.

Police have been unwilling to release details in the case and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon has brought not charges against the officers involved.

The morning rally drew about 50 people in the wind and rain. Attendants included Nieto’s family members as well as relatives of Yanira Serrano-Garcia and O’Shaine Evans, two other young people killed by police in the Bay Area.

Adriana Camarena, a member of the Justice and Love for Alex Nieto Coalition, was in the car with the Nietos after the rally ended when they got news of the magistrates ruling.

When the Nietos heard, Camerana said, “they were optimistic that they would start getting some answers.”

The city has continually refused to reveal the identities of any of the officers involved in the Nieto shooting, and many have questioned the deadly encounter. The SFPD recently sought a protective order that would have allowed them to withhold the officers’ names throughout the civil case.

“I haven’t had that in one case I’ve litigated. And I’ve been doing this for ten years,” said Adante Pointer, attorney for the Nietos.

In the restrictive protective order that the city wanted, the police “would be under fictitious names. So Officer One, Officer Two, Officer Three, Officer Four. So the public would never know who was involved in this shooting,” said Pointer.

The city will likely release the names in the next two weeks—all 34 names of officers that responded to the scene. The release could be delayed if the city fights the Judge’s ruling.

Police Chief Greg Suhr has argued that the names should be kept secret because of threats against the officers. Suhr has explained that he was referring to a threat made on social media by an individual who lives outside of the United States.

But in the Dec. 3 hearing, Judge Cousins ruled that there was no credible threat that justified withholding the names of the officers.

The release of the names is one of the first results of what will be a long process of the discovery stage of the federal civil case. The Nietos have also petitioned District Attorney George Gascon for a criminal indictment, and there is also an ongoing investigation at the Office of Citizen Complaints.

Police who kill almost never face consequences, even when the cases are the subject of the collective rage and protest of millions, such as the recent cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The same day of the judge’s decision to require Nieto’s killers be named, people took to the streets nationwide in protest of the non-indictment decision for Garner’s killer, who used an illegal chokehold that killed Garner in an incident that was filmed by a bystander.

“Yet again, it’s a case in which it’s very clear to any reasonable person that a terrible crime has been committed. Something unlawful has happened,” said Camarena.

Camarena said these indictment proceedings against police officer misconduct are flawed.

“We’re relying on district attorneys, who have a day-to-day collaborative relationship with police,” she said.

In Nieto’s case, not much is known about the police version of events, as the city has refused to make public practically any information about the killing. The police reports, witness statements, recording and transcript of the 911 call all remain classified. The city did release Nieto’s autopsy, a full six months after his death.

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