SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Two police officers who killed a 20-year-old Guatemalan man by shooting him in the back will not face criminal charges, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon said.
San Francisco police Officers Craig Tiffe and Eric Reboli killed Amilcar Perez Lopez in the Mission District on the night of Feb. 26, 2015.
Despite evidence that Perez Lopez was shot in the back and the back of the head, and two witnesses who say he was running away when shot, Gascon declined to press charges Wednesday, saying he could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the shooting was unjustified.
“The vast majority of the physical evidence and eyewitness accounts do not contradict the officers’ statements,” Gascon said.
An autopsy revealed Perez Lopez was shot five times in the back and once in the back of his head, apparently contradicting Reboli’s statement that Perez-Lopez was lunging at him with a knife when the officer opened fire.
But the DA’s office found Perez-Lopez could have turned 90 to 180 degrees between the time Reboli started to shoot and the moment the bullets entered his body, according to an analysis by a use-of-force expert.
Even without that analysis, the shooting would still be justified, Gascon said, because Perez Lopez was turned in the direction of a civilian, Abraham P., whom he had been chasing with a knife before the officers arrived, according to police reports and eyewitnesses.
“The law in this area is very clear,” Gascon said. “From a legal perspective, the shooting would still be justified.”
The decision not to charge the officers was met with “enormous anger and sadness” by many community members, according to the Rev. Richard Smith, pastor of the Episcopal Church of St. John in the city’s Mission District.
“It’s basically re-traumatized everybody,” Smith said. “People in the Mission, especially the Latino communities, have experienced police abuses for many years. When Perez-Lopez was killed it opened those old wounds.”
For the past year, Smith and a group of community members have organized weekly vigils outside the city’s Mission police station, to urge the DA’s office to complete its investigation and file charges against the officers.
Smith said he and others helped two witnesses who were afraid to step forward give statements to investigators at his church in December 2015. The witnesses were scared to come forward at first because of their immigration status and fear of police retaliation, he said.
Smith said the DA’s office appeared to interpret evidence in a way that reinforced the officers’ narrative, rather than the witnesses’ and community’s version of events.
The DA’s two-year investigation included interviews with more than 32 witnesses, review of video and audio recordings, and an animated 3-D reenactment based on forensic evidence and analysis.
According to the investigation, plainclothes Officers Reboli and Tiffe were the first to respond to reports that Perez Lopez was chasing Abraham P. down Folsom Street with a knife. What led to the knife chase is in dispute.
Abraham P. told police that Perez Lopez was angry because he’d refused to sell a bicycle to him. Perez Lopez’s roommate told investigators that Abraham P. was blocking the entrance to Perez Lopez’s home and arguing about whether he lived there, an account consistent with a MUNI bus video.
According his parent’s civil lawsuit, Perez Lopez was walking home “when he was confronted by a man who began following and taunting him.”
Tiffe said when he encountered Perez Lopez, the man had a “bloodlust crazed” look in his eye. A toxicology report found Perez-Lopez had a blood alcohol content of .19 percent, well over the legal driving limit.
Both officers said they identified themselves as police and tried to apprehend Perez Lopez, but he started swinging the knife at them, first at Tiffe, who had tried to force him to the ground, and then at Reboli.
Reboli said that after he shouted, “Police, drop the knife!” or, “Drop the knife!” Perez Lopez momentarily stopped before advancing toward him, making slashing motions with the blade. Reboli said he feared for his life and the life of his partner when he fired his weapon.
Tiffe said Perez-Lopez was “kind of moving in different directions” when the shots were fired. Though Tiffe said he did not know exactly where Abraham P. was standing, he thought the civilian was close by and that Perez-Lopez was going after him, “so he fired his weapon one time and saw Perez-Lopez fall to the ground,” according to statements cited in the investigation.
In the civil suit filed in April 2015, Perez Lopez’s parents say their son “was running away from what he believed were two unfamiliar men threatening to hurt him” when he was shot from behind, an account corroborated by two eyewitnesses.
But on Wednesday, Gascon said that even if Perez Lopez were running away when the officers shot him, “the direction Perez Lopez would be running would still give the officers a reasonable belief that Abraham P. was in danger.”
“We will never know exactly what happened in those split seconds,” Gascon said, “but ultimately, given the proximity of the suspect with a knife to the officers and Abraham P. of just a few feet, the law does not distinguish between whether he was shot coming toward the officers or running away. The law gives significant deference to officers in situations in which they have to make a split-second decision.”
Gascon acknowledged on Wednesday that Perez Lopez was someone’s son, family member, and a member of the community.
“His loved ones have suffered loss, and my heart goes out to them,” Gascon said.
In March, a judge lifted an almost two-year stay in the Perez Lopez family’s civil suit against the city, finding further delay would impede their right to a speedy trial and postpone the resolution of a case “in which the public has a strong interest.”
The family’s attorney, Arnaldo Casillas, could not be reached for comment Thursday, but he told Courthouse News in March that his team was moving full steam ahead toward a jury trial scheduled for March 2018.