Bloodshed in Bernal Heights

The police shooting of Alejandro Nieto leaves a community in shock

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rebecca@sfbg.com

On Friday morning, March 21, the day that Alejandro Nieto was shot and killed by San Francisco Police Department officers, he went to the gym with his friend Byron Pedroza. It was something they did often, Pedroza said; the two of them had signed up for gym memberships together. "He'd be like, 'B, get up. Let's go work out.'"

Nieto and Pedroza had met at El Toro nightclub, where Nieto worked as a security guard for nearly two years. The club, which attracts Latino clientele and hosts live performances on Mondays, has tight security: There are several guards equipped with Tasers.

"He was the type of person who'd help me a lot," Pedroza said. "Thanks to him, I went to college," enrolling at City College of San Francisco.

Nieto was a semester away from completing his degree in administration of justice. He was studying on scholarship, in pursuit of his goal to become a youth probation officer. Nieto drove a '95 Chevy Caprice — an old police car, Pedroza said — and they fixed it up together.

Ramiro Del Rio, Nieto's co-worker at El Toro, described him as punctual and considerate. He'd seen Nieto in stressful situations before, when dealing with drunk and rowdy bar patrons. "He was very calm," Del Rio said of Nieto. "He would always want to talk to the person without using aggressive force."

Nieto favored juice and soda instead of alcohol, he said, but after he started working out, "it was straight water." Also, "He was Buddhist."

 

HIS WORK TASER

Nieto had been scheduled to work that night, March 21. Instead, he was killed in Bernal Heights Park from multiple gunshot wounds inflicted by rounds fired by at least four officers. It's unknown exactly how many bullet wounds Nieto sustained; friends said they believed at least 14 rounds had been fired.

As of March 31, the San Francisco Medical Examiner still had not released autopsy results. The officers involved had been placed on paid leave. Nieto's community remained stunned by his sudden death, staging a march through the Mission the following weekend to protest what they viewed as an unjust use of deadly force.

According to a transcript from a 911 call placed minutes before the shooting, which Police Chief Greg Suhr read aloud during a March 25 public meeting at Leonard Flynn Elementary School held to discuss the incident, officers opened fire within three and a half minutes of arriving at Bernal Heights Park.

Police were responding to calls reporting a man "with a gun on his hip. A black handgun," according to the call record, which Suhr read aloud. Police did not reveal the identity of the caller, but noted that the caller was not a police officer.

A neighbor who declined to be named told the Bay Guardian that shortly before the shooting, two men walking down the pedestrian pathway on the park's north slope alerted a jogger of a man ahead with a gun on his hip. The jogger, who came within 50 feet of the man, reported noticing that he was "pacing back and forth" and "air boxing."

The person who phoned 911 also initially reported seeing a man pacing back and forth. But minutes later, the anonymous caller reported to 911 dispatchers, "He is eating chips ... but resting his hand on the gun."

In reality, there was no gun — it was Nieto's Taser, carried in a holster. Friends who spoke at a March 24 vigil said they believed Nieto had headed up there to eat a burrito while looking out at the city from the top of the hill, a place he often went to clear his head.

A sergeant from the Ingleside station and other police officers arrived at the scene minutes after receiving reports of a man with a gun, Suhr said at the public meeting. Police faced Nieto from a distance of about 75 feet, up a hill.