By Alex Emslie
The pair of San Francisco police officers who first confronted a man they would shoot to death seconds later in a San Francisco park two years ago testified Wednesday that they were certain Alejandro Nieto was threatening them with a firearm, only to discover after shooting a combined 43 rounds that he was carrying a Taser stun gun.
Nieto’s parents are suing Lt. Jason Sawyer and Officers Richard Schiff, Roger Morse and Nate Chew in federal court for excessive force causing the wrongful death of their 28-year-old son. They plan to call a civilian witness who will testify that Nieto never drew the Taser he was carrying, according to their attorney, after first calling Schiff and Sawyer to the stand.
Both officers testified that Nieto seemed not to react to their gunshots and continued to hold a gun-shaped object in front of him that was casting a red laser sight from its tip.
“Usually there is an expectation that if a person is getting shot or shot at — maybe they drop the object,” Sawyer testified. “If they’re getting hit, they wince, scream, yell, something. There was no reaction.”
He said after he emptied the first 13 rounds from his gun and went to reload, he thought maybe Nieto was wearing a bulletproof vest.
“Once I realized there was no reaction, I picked up my sights and I aimed for the head,” he said.
High-Priority Call: ‘We’re going’
Schiff, who is now 25, was about 10 weeks out of the police academy and was being evaluated by Sgt. Jason Sawyer on the evening of March 21, 2014. They had just finished a traffic stop and were talking it over in a gas station parking lot about a mile away when dispatch relayed a 911 call of a man with a gun in Bernal Heights Park.
“I believe I told Officer Schiff, ‘We’re going,’ ” Sawyer testified. They circled around the south side of Bernal Heights Park, but they couldn’t get in, and Schiff eventually pulled around a gate to an access road on the park’s northern side.
Schiff slowed down when they saw a man matching the description of a Latino male — 6-foot-1, weighing about 200 pounds and wearing a red jacket — round a corner on the steep access road and stride toward the officers’ patrol car, he testified.
The officers’ descriptions of Nieto differed slightly. Schiff said he had nothing in his hands; Sawyer said he was carrying a bag.
Sawyer suggested Schiff pull a little closer, and they both exited their car with their guns drawn about 30 yards from Nieto.
‘Show me your hands’
Nieto stopped and took a shooting stance as they were getting out of the car, Schiff said.
The rookie officer testified that he shouted, “Show me your hands!” once and began to shout it again when Nieto mimicked the phrase back to him, and raised both arms up slightly. Then, Schiff said, Nieto reached to his hip with his right hand.
The officer said he made eye contact with Nieto and saw an “aggressive, angry response” to the order.
“He understood what I said, heard what I said, was able to articulate it back to me and now presented a serious threat,” Schiff said.
He told the Nietos’ attorney, Adante Pointer, that he didn’t recall that Nieto was wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap. The officers’ lead counsel, Deputy City Attorney Margaret Baumgarten, said after the hearing that there would be further testimony on whether Nieto was wearing sunglasses, but she did not elaborate.
Schiff said he saw the laser sight before he was able to fire his first round. After exhausting his first magazine, he shouted “red” to Sawyer, a code for being out of ammunition, and Sawyer shouted back “covering.” As he reloaded, Schiff said Nieto went to the ground in a prone position — on his stomach with his arms stretched out in front of him — and he continued aiming the Taser and its red laser sight.
Sometime during the shooting, officers Roger Morse and Nate Chew pulled their cruiser alongside Schiff and Sawyer, but neither of the initial officers noticed they were there until the shooting stopped. Morse and Chew also fired at Nieto and are expected to testify Thursday.
All continued shooting until Sawyer gave an order to cease fire.
“I saw his head go down,” he testified. “I saw the gun that was in his hand go to the side, and it appeared that his body went limp.”
The officers spread across the road and approached Nieto in a loose line. Morse kicked the Taser away and Schiff searched and handcuffed Nieto. He said Nieto was making noises and moving his mouth, and he was about to start CPR when another officer relieved him so he could be separated from the other involved officers and taken from the scene.
Nieto was pronounced dead at the scene.
“It was tragic, but unfortunately I was forced,” Schiff said.