About a year and a half ago, I was in Ferguson, Mo., where I listened to articulate young people, sometimes sobbing, as they talked about their abuse at the hands of local police. I listened to moms, also in tears, as they told how helpless they felt watching what law enforcement was doing to their kids.
Last week, as I sat in the courtroom watching the trial of the four officers who killed Alex Nieto, the faces I had seen in Ferguson came back to me. As the story of Nieto’s death was told, and photos of his bullet-riddled body were projected onto a screen, I could see the tears on the faces of his parents and friends — tears remarkably similar to the ones I had seen in Ferguson months before, full of grief and shock, frustration and outrage.
In last week’s trial, a largely white, all-suburban jury decided the officers were not using excessive force when they killed Nieto in a hail of 59 bullets as he walked, with his hands in his pockets, in Bernal Heights Park. The verdict came as San Franciscans are still raw from the video of the execution-style police shooting of Mario Woods in the Bayview. And it came one year after police fired six fatal shots to the back of my neighbor, a young Guatemalan immigrant named Amilcar Perez Lopez, when he was running for his life.
If Alex, Mario, Amilcar, and so many others were isolated stories, it would be bad enough. But these are part of a racism and a cruelty going back decades in our city’s law enforcement culture.
When I’ve discussed Perez Lopez’s killing with Latino families in my neighborhood, I’ve been saddened at how many simply took it for granted that rogue officers could so brutally kill this young man without consequences. After two weeks of paid administrative leave, these officers simply went back to regular duties. For many of the Mission’s Latinos, such police abuse and subsequent impunity are a tragic fact of life.
In such a climate, can we even hope to re-establish trust and mutual respect between law enforcement and the community? Is reconciliation even possible? Maybe not. Unless, that is, we can get to the truth. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once noted, no genuine reconciliation is possible unless we tell the truth.
At this moment in San Francisco, truth telling might involve our having the backs of young people of color who bravely come forward with their stories of police abuse. It might also mean supporting courageous officers who break their code of silence to tell what they know from within the Department.
And it might mean demanding, as the people of South Africa once did, that the police tell the truth about its rogue officers. Sadly, the San Francisco Police Department has not always done this.
In Perez Lopez’s case, as facts from two independent autopsies and the testimonies of eyewitnesses have surfaced, Chief Greg Suhr has told three different — and implausible — stories to keep his officers from being held accountable. In the case of Woods, whose brutal death we saw on video, Suhr expects us not to believe what our own eyes tell us. And in Nieto’s case, it took a judge’s order before the chief finally released the names of the shooting officers. Despite the recent verdict of the largely white suburban jurors, there are now stronger suspicions than ever of police brutality and a coverup in Nieto’s killing.
The U.S Department of Justice could help us get to the truth in these tragic deaths — but only if we demand a full civil rights investigation. Sadly, this is a great deal more than the DOJ has offered thus far.
In this painful and bloody year in our city, genuine reconciliation between law enforcement and our communities might still be possible. True, the integrity and courage it requires in telling the truth may sometimes border on the heroic. But do we have an alternative?
Fr. Richard Smith is the Vicar of St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in San Francisco’s Mission District where he has worked for immigration reform for several years.