Jury Decides Excessive Force Not Used Against Alex Nieto on Bernal Hill


After eight hours of deliberation, the jury in the  wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of Bernal neighbor Alex Nieto decided yesterday that the San Francisco Police officers involved in the March 2014 incident were justified when they shot Nieto on Bernal Hill.

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

Four San Francisco police officers did not use excessive force in 2014 when they shot and killed a man who allegedly pointed a stun gun at them that they mistook for a pistol, a federal jury found Thursday in a lawsuit filed by the man’s family.

The eight-member jury decided that the officers had not violated the constitutional rights of Alejandro “Alex” Nieto, a 27-year-old City College of San Francisco student and security guard, when they fired multiple shots at him in Bernal Heights Park.

Officers Richard Schiff, Nathan Chew and Roger Morse and Lt. Jason Sawyer fired at least 48 shots after they said Nieto pointed what they believed was a handgun at them, but which later turned out to be a Taser stun gun.

The legal team representing the Nieto family relied heavily upon testimony from their star witness, Antonio Theodore, to undermine the narrative provided by the officers involved in the incident. But in the end, Theodore’s testimony was itself undermined by inconsistencies and concerns about his reliability, as MissionLocal explained:

Much of the plaintiff’s case rested on the testimony of one man, Antonio Theodore, who said he saw Nieto with his hands in his pockets during the shooting. He was the only known non-police eyewitness to the shooting, and also testified that the shooting occurred dozens of yards from where police testimony — and physical evidence — indicates it did.

Theodore’s testimony was corroborated by the physical evidence, Pointer said. The safety on Nieto’s taser was on in photographs after the shooting — which would have prevented it from firing — and a bone fragment was found in Nieto’s jacket pocket.

All of that, [paintiff’s attorney Adante] Pointer argued, backed up Theodore’s claim that officers fired on a man with his hands in his pockets and never drew his taser.

“Alex Nieto was just another notch on the SFPD’s belt,” Pointer said on Thursday.

But under cross-examination from the defense, Theodore admitted that he is an alcoholic with trouble recalling specific details and that he has a mild astigmatism.

Still, even if the trial had the ultimate effect of reinforcing the official narrative of what happened on Bernal Hill during the evening of March 21, 2014, it also highlighted the magnitude of the Nieto family’s loss. Examiner reporter Jonah Owen Lamb described some of that :

Friends of Nieto as well as his family lawyers called the verdict one more example of the impunity police have when they use violence against people of color.

“SFPD can shoot 59 bullets and get away with it,” said Oscar Salinas, one of a handful of angry Nieto supporters outside the courthouse Thursday.

Adante Pointer, who led the team of lawyers for the Nieto family, said in a comment to the San Francisco Examiner that this is a “sad day for the Nietos, [and a] worse day for San Francisco.”

After the verdict he said that this is just one of several cases in which the San Francisco police have allegedly used excessive force.

“This is not the only case I think they have killed someone unlawfully,” he said. “SFPD is on the map.”

Ely Flores, a friend of Nieto, said he was angry, nervous and sad when he heard the verdict. But he said the trial was also a kind of vindication. Telling his late friend’s story in court was a victory in itself. Now, he said, it’s up to the public to decide on whether it was right or not.

In a blog post called “A Letter to Privileged People” published in the early hours of this morning, activist Ben Bac Sierra captured the sentiment of Nieto’s surviving family and friends:

The jury decided against Alex Nieto and for the San Francisco Police Officers.

We, the people, did not lose.

Education lost: your fairy tale books about the way intelligence works were proven to be a farce. We argued better than you, with stronger evidence and more compelling logic. Does the stupidity of the verdict answer to you why we refuse to value your schools and teachers and puppet administrators?

We, the people, did not lose.

Your justice system lost: your sham is simply a tool to make-believe everything is fair and just and that we should accept your verdict like good players in a fixed game, where the odds are totally stacked against us.

We, the people, did not lose.

Your morality lost: you, with your white smile and perfect teeth, you were proven to be cowards who could not stand up for the right principle, for a real human being who was unlawfully killed. You feared going back to your villas in Clayton and Danville and telling your friends and family that you voted for a brown person and not the white, clean-cut poster officers.

We, the people, did not lose.

Your United States of America Constitution lost. It lost. You lost. Your lie of equality and freedom lost.

And it is only your naked conscience now that remains, your own personal empty humanity, stripped of predilections, fantasies, and superior justifications. Now, standing there exposed in your own soul, how will you respond?

If you are offended, it is not my fault. You made up the rules.

If you are challenged, it is your chance to do right and spread the news. Fight your father, your uncle, your sister, your privileged community.

We, the people, did not lose, for we continue with the truth, la pura neta: not forward, but upward, we march, we fly.


10 thoughts on “Jury Decides Excessive Force Not Used Against Alex Nieto on Bernal Hill

  1. I do not believe that the police went out to pick and choose Alex Nieto to shoot, for no good reason, least of all because he had slightly more pigment in his skin than they did, and kill. I do not believe they put their careers, lives and peace of mind at risk for no good reason. We must try them, not on the actions of other police around the country, but on the facts and testimonies alone. I believe that justice was served here. I hope that all parties here will choose to find peace and wisdom from this.

    • Vernon, with due respect, I think it’s a huge mistake to describe the cops’ behavior as “going out to pick & choose Alex Nieto to shoot.” Clearly, no one’s saying that. Turning it into something that extreme & unlikely takes the tone & has the effect of belittling the very real fact that POC have a hugely different relationship with the police than do privileged whites. For obvious reasons. And within the scope of this relationship, there are far too many killings. Where, ultimately, the police become judge, jury, & executioner in the blink of an eye.

      As a member of the dominant culture, what I see is institutional & structural racism that allows these things to happen and go unpunished. White people, including myself, tend see the police as helpers, based on our experience. Too many POC see them, for very good reasons, as threats. The story of Alex Nieto is stinky to me. 59 bullets. A 10 second break. Etc, etc. No video, unfortunately. But Mario Woods’ death tells me we’ve got at least a few cops with itchy trigger fingers and a racist bent. It is not OK. It can never be OK.

      Regardless of your belief in Alex Nieto’s death, I hope you can open your mind & heart to the life & death-level inequality we live with in this country. Even in SF! even in Bernal Heights. As a white person, I say enough! I send my love & condolences to the Nieto family & friends, who were emotionally battered all over again in court with a heart-breaking outcome. I hope I’m not alone thinking this here in my neighborhood. This is not a time for silence.

      • I agree with you completely. And, in my opinion, even if he had a shotgun, he didn’t need to be shot 48 times. It disgusts me. I can’t imagine what his family is going through and I wish them peace.

      • Agreed. Having heard the shots(too many to count), hearing the media reports of the tragedy supplied by the SFPD that kept increasing the number of shots from 3-5, upwards, to the poor treatment of the family, it has always felt like the same attempt to obscure the facts of the case.
        This is a sad day in Bernal.

  2. And let’s not forget the absolutely reprehensible manner in which the Nieto family was treated by the police after his death: they were treated like criminals themselves, with no consideration at all of their pain in not knowing what had happened to their son. (For those who forget, the police, after killing Nieto, spent their time building a case that he was mentally unstable, attempting the next day to search his parents home for “evidence” of that conclusion before telling them that he had been killed.) The parent’s treatment was entirely predictible given their non-white skin and their immigrant background — they were without power and the police knew it and sought to take advantage (or just never regarded them as people with any value in the first place). It should be its own lawsuit, in my opinion, and the police force should be held accountable.

    Maybe this was really just a tragic accident. But by treating Alex as a criminal even after killing him and investing so much energy to convict him in the court of public opinion (getting out ahead of the news), the police sacrificed a lot of trust they might have otherwise had. If they were so sure it was justified, why was the very first thing the police did was spend so much energy to prove him up as mentally ill? Even if it wasn’t actually a cover-up, it sure smelled like one.

  3. My most heartfelt condolences to the family & friends of Alex Nieto. Not the verdict I had hoped for or expected.

  4. All sides agree that Nieto was mentally unstable. WHY didn’t his family take away his taser? In the twilight Nieto aims the taser at the cops, who are justified in shooting because the taser looks like a gun.

    A jury has deliberated 8 hours over this case. Why won’t some people take this as the correct verdict?

  5. Gonna have to side with the Jury on this one. Is 48, or 59 shots alot. You bet. Excessive? Thats what was debated. Sfpd either uses guns with 12 round clips or 15. Im not sure which. Either way, the narrative given by the cops was that Nieto took loads of the shots, eventually fell, but continued holding the taser facing officers who stopped shooting when the red beam from his weapon stopped pointing at them. Not particularly unreasonable, whether you believe the story is up to you. I dont know the officers and i know its very possible that a situation like the one theyre saying happened could happen. So coming from a neutral stand point, i wouldnt be able to say that 4 cops firing that many shots between them at a target that wouldnt go down is blatantly excessive. Its alot. But the testimony explains fairly reasonably why so many shots were fired. It was a tragedy, and there isnt always one party whose responsible for tragedies. Based on the story i heard, the information the police had to go on, and the mental health issues Alex was going through that the Jury wasnt allowed to hear about. I think the story the police are telling is true. And i think the notion that officers, in San Francisco, in The Mission, in 2016, were quick to use force against Nieto because he was Hispanic, is purely inflammatory. Ive got no statistics but i would think the majority of conflicts mission station cops report to would be conflicts involving Latin Americans, because the mission is largely latino. And how frequently do police shootings happen? Seldom. If its not a majority, i think you still get the point. This wasnt these 4 cops first call to a disturbance. They acted the way they did for a reason. And i think it was because of the way Alex approached them. Its sad to me that this gets turned into a headline and a reason to keep racial tensions high. This was no way to react to police presence, if you thought cops were lying scumbags before then you probably still do. I dont get down with those kind of generalizations. The cops story was believable enough and the only guy saying it happened differently was decidedly unreliable, not only did he have alcohol issues-he waited a year to say anything, had an astigmatism, and wears glasses that he wasn’t wearing that day. I cant believe him over 4 others, and another man claiming Alex was being weird, if you have issues seeing and remembering things, and were asking what you remember and what you saw. That would be ridiculous. RIP

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