Police radio dispatch from Alejandro Nieto shooting raises new questions

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Scene from a memorial in Bernal Heights Park for Alejandro Nieto.

Police radio dispatch records from March 21, the night Alejandro Nieto was gunned down in Bernal Heights Park by San Francisco Police Department officers, had been withheld from the public, journalists, and attorneys – until San Francisco reporter Alex Emslie obtained copies of those records via Broadcastify.com and published them on KQED’s website.

The radio dispatch files offer a rare, behind-the-scenes glimpse of what occurred in the moments leading up to the officer-involved shooting, which has generated tremendous controversy in recent weeks.

Friends and supporters of Nieto have led marches to protest the shooting and are planning ongoing events to keep the pressure on. The SFPD’s account of the incident is that officers opened fire in defense of their own lives because Nieto pointed a Taser at them, causing them to believe he was tracking them with a firearm.

We’ll turn to the audio in a moment, but first, a key point. In an interview following a town hall meeting held by the San Francisco Police Department on March 25, the Bay Guardian asked Police Chief Greg Suhr: “Can you say more about the behavior that was actually reported in the 911 calls?”

Suhr responded, “The information that we had at the time was that he was behaving in an aggressive manner.”

Yet the audio files that have now surfaced reflect no mention of aggressive behavior, nor of a suspect brandishing a weapon.

Here are excerpts of the full sound file, originally posted to KQED’s website:

The first mention of the 221 – police code for person with a gun – is to relate a 911 caller’s description of a Latino male suspect, who has “got a gun on his hip, and is pacing back and forth on the north side of the park near a chain-linked fence.” The next description that comes over the dispatch radio, also apparently related from a caller who was in the park, is that “he is eating chips, or sunflower seeds.”

Several minutes later (here’s the full audio recording), officers can be heard communicating with one another after they have arrived at the park.

First, a voice reports that the “subject is walking down the hill.” Then, 39 seconds later, someone can be heard saying, “He is walking inside the park.”

Six seconds after that, someone says, “There’s a guy in a red shirt, way up the hill, walking toward you guys.”

Several seconds later, a voice calmly states, “I got a guy right here.”

Twenty-six seconds after that, a person can be heard shouting, “Shots fired! Shots fired!”

“What’s very telling is that none of the people are saying, the guy had a gun, he pointed it at us,” said attorney Adante Pointer of the Law Offices of John Burris, which is preparing to file a complaint on behalf of Nieto’s family against the SFPD. “It begs the question, did [Nieto] do what they said he did?”

Pointer added that the sound files still don’t offer a complete picture of what transpired. “There is more than one radio channel,” he pointed out, and added that his firm hopes to obtain other relevant documentation through a process of discovery, once a lawsuit has been filed.

“If this was a righteous shooting,” Pointer said, “then [SFPD] shouldn’t have any fear of being transparent. They shouldn’t have any fear of public scrutiny.”

At an April 14 press conference, Burris discussed the difficulty his office had encountered in its initial attempts to obtain recordings of police radio communications.

Guardian video by Rebecca Bowe

As it turns out, those files were indeed preserved – by a third party. Broadcastify.com, a San Antonio-based company founded by an IT professional who previously worked for IBM, broadcasts live audio transmitted by public agencies picked up by radio scanners, and maintains a publicly available database of sound files.

We attempted to reach San Francisco Police Department’s media relations team this afternoon to discuss these audio files. However, we were informed that all of the public information officers were gone for the day, and unavailable to speak with the press.

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