A federal civil rights lawsuit has been filed against the San Francisco Police Department over the shooting death of a 21-year-old Guatemalan immigrant.
The suit, filed in federal court by the family of Amilcar Perez-Lopez, alleges officers used excessive force against the man during a police encounter on Feb. 26. The family say Perez-Lopez was trying to flee from a man who was taunting him when two plain-clothes officers grabbed him from behind. The suit says Perez-Lopez didn’t know they were officers because they didn’t identify themselves during the encounter.
When Perez-Lopez attempted to break free from the officers, one fired six shots at the man. Five shots struck Perez-Lopez in the back, and one struck him in the head.
Police have offered a different version of events, saying Perez-Lopez was a suspected bike thief who charged at officers with a knife. His alleged threatening demeanor prompted them to open fire on Perez-Lopez, police said.
But that version — which an attorney representing the family called a “lie” — runs contrary to eyewitness testimony given to a private investigator hired by the family. One of those eyewitnesses includes the alleged victim of the purported bike theft, who claims he was trying to sell the bike to Perez-Lopez when a heated argument broke out, prompting the victim to call police.
That version is slightly different from the account given in the lawsuit in which family members say Perez-Lopez was on his way home when the officers approached him and opened fire.
“One of the officers grabbed Amilcar Perez-Lopez and secured a bear-hug hold around Amilcar’s petite upper body,” the suit says. “Because (the officers) wore civilian clothing, and did not identify themselves, Amilcar was not able to determine that the men were police officers. Amilcar broke free by wriggling out from the officer’s hold.”
The suit claims Perez-Lopez tried to hide between two cars after fleeing from police. According to the suit, that’s when officers opened fire on the man, striking him four times in the back, once in the arm and once in the head. The details of where the bullets struck Perez-Lopez came from a private autopsy conducted by a forensic pathologist hired by the family; the city’s medical examiner’s office has not yet released its own report, the San Francisco Chronicle said.
Perez-Lopez’s parents, who remain in Guatemala, told reporters via Skype that they never expected their son to be killed by police when he was sent to live in the United States, Reuters reported, citing the Bay City News service.
Both officers involved in the February incident, identified by the police department as Eric Reboli and Craig Tiffe, have since returned to active duty.
“The officers, as they are only allowed to fire in defense of themselves or others, felt that one of those situations was in play,” San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr said the day of the shooting.
The attorney representing the family has asked the Department of Justice to launch a civil rights investigation into the shooting. A spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.