The family of Alex Nieto sat stoically in federal court Wednesday as two of the officers who opened fire on him in March 2014 retold their version of the events that led up to Nieto’s death at Bernal Heights Park.
The second day of the federal civil trial by Nieto’s family against the city of San Francisco saw plaintiff’s lawyers drill down into the details of the incident and question the choices made by officers, especially how they determined what kind of threat they faced.
Meanwhile, defense lawyers from the City Attorney’s Office who are representing the four officers, tried to reiterate the steps each officer took to illustrate how they acted according to department rules of engagement.
The defendants — officers Jason Sawyer, Roger Morse, Richard Schiff and Nathan Chew — all sat in court during the proceedings.
The day’s first witness, Schiff, who was in training when the shooting occurred, told the Nieto family’s attorney Adante Pointer that Schiff feared for his life when he saw Nieto reach for what he thought was a holstered gun. It was a stun gun.
Schiff said that Nieto had been walking down the hill toward him and Sawyer when the two yelled repeatedly for Nieto to put his hands up. Nieto, who had his hands out and was holding some kind of food in one hand, instead told police to put their hands up, said Schiff.
When Nieto went to his side and pulled what Shiff thought was a firearm, he opened fire, as did Sawyer.
“When [he] goes for the gun, I was attempting to fire back,” said Schiff. “As soon as he went down and pulled the gun, that’s when I attempted to fire back.”
A barrage of bullets — a total of 59 shots were fired by the four officers, said Pointer — followed until Nieto, who had laid down on the ground, ceased to be a threat, said Schiff.
Schiff said he is trained to reassess the situation as it evolves.
But Pointer then questioned why Schiff fired more than 20 rounds when there was no sign that anything had come from the weapon Nieto pulled from a holster at his side.
After firing 13 rounds and then an additional 10 rounds, a ceasefire was called.
Pointer also questioned why Schiff did not recall several details of the incident. Schiff had said in an interview after the shooting that Nieto looked him in the eye and had an angry look on his face as he marched down the hill.
But Schiff did not note that Nieto was wearing glasses or a hat, even though Pointer said Nieto was found at the scene with a bullet in his hat.
Lt. Jason Sawyer, who was training Schiff that day, faced similar questions on the stand from Pointer, especially as to why he acted as he did once he saw what he thought was a gun.
“You called this a gun, but you never saw this gun shoot anything out of it. You never saw this gun shoot streams of confetti out of it? You never heard the sound of return fire?” Pointer asked.
“As long as the weapon was pointed at me, I kept firing,” Sawyer responded when asked about his motivation for continuous fire after Nieto pulled out his Taser. Officers are trained to make sure the threat has been neutralized, said Sawyer.
Defense lawyers questioned both officers about rules governing use of force, and both said according to their understanding of the situation they were justified in their actions.
The trial continues Thursday morning in U.S. District Courtroom.
Read more criminal justice news on the Crime Ink page in print. Follow us on Twitter: @sfcrimeink