San Francisco police officer Michelle Alvis appeared briefly in court this morning to request from a judge more time for her attorneys to gather defense evidence in a case involving charges that she stole cash property from an evidence locker.
Dressed in a gray suit with shoulder-length blonde hair pulled into a ponytail, Alvis until now has mostly escaped press attention stemming from her involvement along with another officer in the shooting death of an unarmed man in 2006.
But the new charges, which appear unrelated to the shooting, have thrust her back into the spotlight even though it will continue to be difficult for the public to learn all that much about the rest of her intriguing career in law enforcement.
That’s because state law specially protects officers from having any details of their personnel files released publicly, including the results of four parallel investigations into the killing of 25-year-old Asa Sullivan, who was shot 16 times by Alvis and a second officer named John Keesor.
We’ve tried unsuccessfully for two years to learn the conclusions of four standard probes into the shootings done by the SFPD’s homicide unit, the internal affairs division, the District Attorney’s Office and the Office of Citizen Complaints.
But a half-dozen public records requests filed with the OCC and the police department’s legal division in an attempt to get access to their investigations of the Sullivan shooting have all been rejected with the responses citing either state laws barring from disclosure police personnel files or others that keep from the public information about a case that’s still considered an open investigation.
Combined, the rejections have made it all-but-impossible for us to learn more about the killing, justified or not. That means, in other words, a police officer has to be criminally charged before any alleged abuses of police power, which include the ability to jail and shoot people, become a matter of public record.
In the meantime, Alvis was indicted last month by a grand jury for allegedly stealing $2,000 from the Taraval police station where it was being held in an evidence locker and then trying to cover it up. She was also charged with filing a false police report and tinkering with or destroying other official records related to the alleged theft. The indictment ultimately contained five charges.
According to the charges, the theft occurred just four months after the June 2006 shooting of Sullivan; Alvis had been transferred to a desk job at the Taraval station, which included the task of handling evidence, to await the investigations into Sullivan’s death.
When Alvis and Keesor were sued by Sullivan’s family, it appeared some documents from civil court would become publicly available and explain a little bit more about what happened, but then a judge agreed to make confidential mountains of information in the suit prohibiting our access to it.
What the public has been told is that the shooting occurred when neighbors of a townhouse near San Francisco State University called police believing squatters had taken it over. The neighbors could have actually called to complain about something else at the townhouse, but for now, as far as what police have stated publicly, the original call regarded squatting. Sullivan, it turned out, was helping the tenants clean up so they could get their security deposit before moving, according to his friends and family.
When police arrived, Sullivan, who was on probation for pot at the time, fled to an attic and told officers he didn’t want to come down believing he’d be returned to jail. No drugs were discovered, as far as we know, and the lawsuit against Alvis and the city claims a friend of Sullivan actually told the police Sullivan wasn’t armed.
According to the later lawsuit, several officers showed up that night in uniform and plainclothes, including narcotics officers Sullivan’s friend recognized from an old job at 7-11, so it’s possible they suspected something much worse than squatting or noise was going on. But we’ll never know that because much of it’s not public besides what little has leaked from the suit and the department’s original statements to the press.
We reported shortly after the killing that the department’s General Orders instruct police officers to call a negotiator if a suspect is barricaded. Police even asked the friend to help talk Sullivan down, according to the later lawsuit. But the officers eventually chose to pursue Sullivan into the attic where they say he took a combative stance and brandished what appeared to be a gun. The department later changed the story and said that it was an eyeglasses case, but only after the press first reported that Sullivan had been armed.
Kathy Espinoza, Asa Sullivan’s mother, described Sullivan’s funeral to the Bayview newspaper back in April:
“Asa’s complexion was much lighter than what he looked like in the casket. His skin with the makeup on to cover the five bullets to his face was so much darker than it really had been when Asa was alive.”
The recent indictment of Alvis, who is 30 years old and lives in Walnut Creek, came April 11 and she bonded out of detention that day after a judge lowered her bail from $100,000 to $30,000. On April 15, she pleaded not guilty to the charges and one charge of false testimony was dismissed that day for reasons that aren’t clear in criminal records at the Hall of Justice.
Lidia Stiglich, an attorney for Alvis, was not immediately available when we called her office and cell phones, nor was the assistant district attorney prosecuting the case, Diane Knoles.
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