San Francisco, CA
The pristine all white casket graced the center of St. John the Evangelist church on Saturday, April 4, 2015. Friends, neighbors and members of the Mission District community gathered to celebrate the life of a man that was taken too early.
We faced the east; the direction of sunrise and new beginnings. We faced the west; the direction of sunset and letting go. We faced the north; the direction of ancestry and elders. We faced the south; the direction of youth and vitality. The Native American ceremony and meditation honored the body of Amilcar Perez-Lopez.
“Amilcar has opened my heart in a way that generally doesn’t open,” defense attorney Bill Simpich said during the memorial.
Six shots were fired. 21-year-old Perez-Lopez died at the scene the night of Thursday, February 26. It was roughly 9:48 p.m. The plainclothes officers that killed him were later identified as Craig Tiffe and Eric Reboli.
Perez-Lopez was an immigrant from a small town in Chiquimula, Guatemala. He had come to San Francisco to work multiple jobs and send money back to his family.
The stories of what happened differ between the police officers and the community witnesses, but one thing remains certain. The San Francisco Police Department had taken another Latino man and the community was outraged.
“The demographic changes and the social changes are very much related to this specific incidence,” Florencia Rojo, a neighbor of Amilcar, said. “The idea that someone has the right to be in a certain space or not, the idea that someone is perceived as an insider or an outsider is a direct result of demographic shifts. And if they’re black or brown they’re going to be perceived as a threat.”
A press conference held on April 24th revealed from a private autopsy that Amilcar was shot six times in the back, contradicting what Police Chief Greg Suhr said in a prior statement. Chief Suhr had previously said that Amilcar charged at the officers with a knife, but the evidence presented by attorney Arnoldo Casillas revealed there was no way this could have happened. Amilcar’s parents have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit.
Officer involved shootings are not new to the Mission District’s Latino community, especially over the last few years. The relationship between officer involved shootings, gentrification and eviction rates form a complex and stressful pull on the evolving culture of the Mission.
“Justice for Amilcar” and “Justicia para Alex Nieto” picket signs are stacked on the second floor by the staircase of the ANSWER (Act now to stop war & end racism) Coalition headquarters at 2969 Mission St. Highlighter yellow and pink squares are laminated and attached to thin pieces of wood. Megaphones are stacked in rows on the handcrafted shelves parallel to the signs.
Answer Coalition’s activist Frank Lara believes officer-involved shootings such as this are a direct assault on the Latino community.
“Now people realize with the Amilcar case – no, they are really killing Latinos. Either they kick you out, or they kill you.” said Lara, “And that’s a big political moment for us. We’re not just critiquing police reform – no, you actually need to talk about housing. You need to talk about good public schools; you need to talk about dignified wages that allow people to live here.“
Lara is a 30-year-old social justice activist and elementary school teacher who has been living in the Mission District for the past eight years. He has experienced the gentrification of the Mission and has seen the changes within his community first hand.
For him, the Answer Coalition is the way to create real changes for justice. Lara believes the issues of gentrification and the current eviction rates are furthering the destruction of the Latino people.
“We have the issue of gentrification, the issue of kicking out Latinos. The hostile environment that’s really created by the forced displacement of a population,” Lara said. “As much as its being sold as this idea of change and ‘communities always change’, the truth is that usually that change comes about by violence, so what our community is suffering right now is violence. “
In the case of Perez-Lopez, the violence may have been linked to misunderstanding.
The two plainclothes officers that shot Perez-Lopez did not speak Spanish, let alone an indigenous language.
Supervisor David Campos’ legislative aide, Hillary Ronen, is concerned about the language barrier that the Perez-Lopez case presents.
“It calls into question the need for bilingual, trilingual officers and really extra care that needs to be taken when a monolingual officer in plainclothes is speaking English and giving orders to a person who does not speak English,” Ronen said.
According to Ronen, there would be obvious confusion in a case like this if plainclothes officers approached someone with a weapon, demanding orders in a language in which that person did not understand.
Basic human instinct would be to engage in flight or fight.
It is also understood that the officers Tiffe and Reboli patrolled a district they were not local to, yet it is not uncommon among the SFPD for officers to patrol areas in which they do not live or work in.
“Supervisor Campos is a big proponent of community policing. Part of community policing is police officers that live and work and are a part of the community they are serving,” Ronen said. “It is very important for officers to be apart of the communities they serve.”
Supervisor David Campos recently reached out to his colleagues to find out the status of the office of citizen’s complaints in regards to the Perez-Lopez shooting.
“He (David Campos) was told that there was 300 pending cases and only three investigators. He is very concerned about the staffing levels and resources for that organization,” Ronen said. “He questions how affective it will be if it is so deeply under resourced. He’s definitely going to be supportive of adding additional investigators to the OCC.”
Mayor Ed Lee recently announced San Francisco is starting a cadet program. This program targets youth of color in school to join leadership development programs where they work with public safety officers. The cadet program will focus on youth in high-risk neighborhoods and try to engage them in a positive and healthy environment.
“The SFPD Cadet Academy provides youth with leadership skills that will lead to a career in law enforcement, build positive relationships between our police officers and youth and keep our communities safe,” said Mayor Lee.
Although this program is meant to build better relationships between the youth and the law enforcement, it does not address the faults that lie within the police department itself.
There are many correlations that exist within the Perez-Lopez case and the findings within a five-year study of officer-involved shootings presented by Chief of Police George Gascón in January 2010.
The study examined SFPD procedures that followed officer-involved shooting from January 2005 to August 2009.
The results and recommendations of the study provide the department with vital information. There were a total of ten recommendations based on the data of the study. Two of them shed importance on the case specific to Amilcar:
1. Less Lethal. A number of shootings were identified where circumstances indicated that a less lethal option other than Extended Range Impact Weapon (ERIW) may have been a viable alternative to the use of deadly force.
2. Language. Although language was not determined to be an impediment in the cases covered by this study, the diversity of San Francisco’s population has presented language issues in the past and will again in the future. The Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC) has advocated for the implementation of the Language Efficiency Program to address this issue department-wide. The Department and OCC are currently working on implementing the provisions of this program in compliance with Department General Order (DGO) 5.20.
The level of trust between the Mission community and the police has become tainted.
The question of what to do and how to combat police impunity still remains of great importance for the working and poor class citizens of the Mission District.
“It’s always darker before the dawn – it’s gonna take a little while,” Lara said. “We’ve taken big hits, but we just gotta keep resisting.”