The recent hunger strike denouncing San Francisco police brutality reminded us of an alarming fact: Although local police have killed 12 civilians over the last two years, not one officer has even been brought to trial. That deadly pattern can change soon as District Attorney George Gascon completes his investigation into the killing of Amilcar Perez Lopez. This young Guatemalan immigrant and Mission resident was running for his life when officers opened fire, leaving him dead in the street with six bullets to the back. The DA now has sufficient evidence to criminally charge those officers with murder, but will he?
District Attorneys normally refrain from filing such charges for various reasons: They want to maintain cordial relations with the San Francisco Police Department; they know jurors are more disposed to believe police testimony over that of civilians; and key witnesses are reluctant to speak up out of fear of police retaliation. Not to mention the relentless opposition DAs will meet from the Police Officers’ Association, the SFPD, Mayor Ed Lee and the media.
As a result, a DA’s decisions can end up being political: Since a jury is unlikely ever to convict an officer, why file charges even if you strongly suspect the officer is guilty?
Something’s not working here. Other factors — nonpolitical ones — must be considered.
For example, the community’s need for truth. Despite several investigations into officer-involved killings, the public receives little information. Parents wanting to know what happened in the last moments of their child’s life are told only fragments of the story, and sometimes outright lies.
By contrast, a trial — in which, of course, an officer would be presumed innocent until proven guilty — offers at least some hope that evidence from all sides can be weighed and evaluated, witnesses from various perspectives can be examined and cross-examined and families and the community can get the information they have a right to. Such a process, conducted in the light of day, can help restore confidence in the legal system a DA represents.
Then there’s the matter of equity. In my community, a young Latino committing a crime that normally warrants a three-year sentence can be tried and sentenced to 50 years. Such swift and severe applications of the law have torn apart too many families and destroyed too many lives.
By contrast, an officer who kills a young Latino is given a two-week paid vacation (called “administrative leave”), then returned to regular duties before the whole matter is quietly forgotten. Rather than being held to a higher standard, the officer is given a pass.
The contrast could not be clearer, nor the question more urgent: Why should a young Latino committing a relatively minor crime be punished so severely when an officer who kills a young Latino faces no consequences? If the law is applied so harshly in one instance, why not the other?
In Amilcar’s case, Gascon must choose truth and equity over political calculations. He has the integrity to do this. He has courageously stood up to a racist Arizona sheriff, and more recently pursued the racist and homophobic text messages between SFPD officers. May he show that same integrity now in reaching his decision about Amilcar.
Fr. Richard Smith is the Vicar of St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in San Francisco’s Mission District.