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Wednesday, June 12, 2024 | Back issues
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SF Police Officers Defend Killing of Alex Nieto

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A civil rights attorney grilled two San Francisco police officers Wednesday about how they managed to mistake a Taser for a gun when they shot Alex Nieto to death two years ago.

Officer Richard Schiff and Lt. Jason Sawyer, the first two witnesses to testify in a wrongful death trial , said they feared for their lives when they fired a combined 48 rounds at the 28-year-old college student.

Nieto was killed in Bernal Heights Park on March 21, 2014. The City College student had stopped to eat a burrito on his way to work as a security guard when someone called police to report an armed man in the park. Nieto had a Taser on his hip, which he carried legally for work.

Police say Nieto defied orders to show his hands and pointed what looked like a gun with a red laser beam at them.

Nieto's parents say an independent investigation and eyewitness contradict the police story.

The Nietos' attorney Adante Pointer asked both officers on Wednesday if they saw any smoke, flames or bullets coming from Nieto's weapon, or if they heard any shots hit the patrol car doors they used for cover that night.

"I believed he was shooting bullets, but I did not see any bullets," Schiff said.

Sawyer and Schiff said they stopped their patrol cars about 30 feet away from Nieto on an access road in the park, left their vehicles and ordered him: "Show me your hands."

Only about 1.5 seconds passed between the time Schiff ordered Nieto to show his hands and Nieto shouted the same command back at the officers before pointing his "gun" at them, Schiff said.

"You're calling this a gun, but you never saw anything shoot out of it," Pointer said.

He rejected Schiff's and Sawyer's description of the incident as a "gunfight," noting that the only people firing guns that night were the four officers on trial.

Both officers said that though they did not see shots or smoke coming from Nieto's weapon, they saw a red laser beam pointing at them, which they considered a deadly threat.

San Francisco Police receive no training on how Tasers work, the officers said, but they do know that guns with laser sights allow shooters to aim quickly, easily and accurately.

"Where you put the laser, that's where the bullet's going to go," Sawyer said. "As soon as I saw the laser pointed at me, I fired."

After Schiff unloaded 13 rounds and reloaded, he saw that Nieto had dropped to the ground in a threatening "tactical position," he said.

"His head was still up," Schiff said. "The gun was still out in front of him. I still saw the red light."

Sawyer said Nieto seemed not to react to the officers' gunfire, which made him think the suspect might be wearing a bulletproof vest. That's why, Sawyer said, he started aiming for Nieto's head.

Sawyer echoed his partner's testimony, telling jurors that when Nieto dropped to the ground his head and weapon came up, pointing at the officers.

When Sawyer, a police sergeant at the time, saw Nieto's head finally drop to the ground moments later, he ordered his fellow officers to "cease fire," he said.

Schiff was so focused on the threat in front of him he did not realize two other officers - codefendants Nathan Chew and Roger Morse - had also fired shots from behind him until after the shooting was over, he told jurors.

After the cease-fire order, Sawyer directed the officers to spread out and approach Nieto slowly. Schiff said Morse kicked the Taser out of Nieto's hand and then handcuffed and searched him, finding two cans of Mace and a pair of handcuffs.

Pointer asked Sawyer about the importance of securing crime scene evidence and whether anyone picked up or turned off the Taser.

Sawyer said the four officers were separated immediately after the shooting and did not talk to each other before giving their statements. He said he knew of no evidence being tampered with at the scene.

When the Taser was found, it was off. Pointer suggested later, outside the courtroom, that the Taser may have been off throughout shooting, despite the officers' testimony to the contrary.

In his final question to Schiff, Pointer asked if the officer had trouble sleeping in the months after the shooting.

Schiff said had no trouble sleeping, presumably because he felt he did what he had been trained to do as a police officer. That's what he told the jury during cross-examination.

Wrapping up the day's testimony, Sawyer said he shot 20 rounds at Nieto because he feared for his life and the lives of his fellow officers.

"I had no doubt he was going to try to shoot us. I believed he was trying to shoot us," Sawyer said. "We can defend ourselves and others as well when faced with death or serious bodily harm."

The other two officers involved in the shooting - Chew and Morse - were expected to testify Thursday.

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