Would Alex Nieto Still Be Alive If He Were White?
Today, in a federal civil rights case, a jury found four San Francisco police officers not liable when they killed Alejandro “Alex” Nieto, a young Latino student at the City College of San Francisco. Police fired 59 shots at Nieto. Fourteen struck him.
The jury ruling came in a wrongful death suit brought by Alex Nieto's parents after police shot and killed him in Bernal Heights Park on March 21, 2014.
While following the case, the ACLU asked: “Would Nieto and others of color still be alive if they were white?” This question rings even louder today. Courageous community activists, in the face of far too many deaths, have brought the excessive use of force by police against people of color into the spotlight.
That police fired 59 shots at Nieto remains a sickening reminder that racism has violent and horrific consequences. We live those consequences right here in San Francisco, as our client Travis Hall can attest.
Far too often, police treat communities like enemies—a problem that disproportionately impacts people of color. We see killings like those of Alex Nieto and Mario Woods again and again. Unfortunately, these cases are only a few examples of the long-standing and systemic failures in the workings of the SFPD, especially as it interacts with communities of color and people with disabilities.
As we wrote only a few weeks ago in our call for a federal investigation of the SFPD, the larger context is even more alarming. Since 2000, SFPD officers have shot at least 103 people – 37 have died. In each of the 37 deaths, the Department found that the use of force was within policy and merited no discipline.
A 2014 analysis found that more than half of 19 individuals killed by San Francisco police between 2005 and January 2014 – 11 out of 19 – had a mental illness.
Racism and bias are persistent and pervasive in how the SFPD operates. Nothing has been more illuminating than the uncovering in April of 2015 of a series of venomous and hateful text messages exchanged between SFPD officers. These messages only came to light as a result of a federal criminal prosecution. The messages contained a series of racist and homophobic comments, characterizing black people as dangerous in the most insulting terms possible, including a liberal use of the “n” word. In the wake of the text disclosures, the San Francisco District Attorney's Office launched a wide-ranging investigation that has apparently been met with stonewalling from the SFPD.
There is no quick fix. What we really need is systemic change and to address racially-biased policing and excessive use of force.
We join in grieving the death of Alex Nieto at the hands of San Francisco police.
Alan Schlosser is Senior Counsel at the ACLU of Northern California.
There will be a vigil tonight from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts at 2868 Mission at 25th St. in San Francisco.