Tensions between police and the policed have been rising for years and especially in the past two years after several police killings of unarmed and mostly minority victims that resulting in massive protests and calls for re-imagining policing in America.
As protests and riots erupted in other cities around the country, San Diegans too marched in protest of excessive police violence and killings, mostly after the recorded murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis last year.
But San Diego itself has experienced several local police shootings and incidents that deserve more attention and examination to force transparency and accountability among our local police agencies that we rely on to keep the peace and protect our families.
Trust and confidence in our law enforcement is fundamental in our free society, but several recent events have shaken that trust in our police and they must work to rebuild it.
This week, the City of San Diego agreed to a $3 million settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit related to a shooting death by San Diego police in 2015.
Fridoon Nehad, 42, was shot and killed by San Diego Police Office Neal Browder in the Midway area after someone reported that a man with a knife threatened a store employee.
Officer Browder responded to the late night call but failed to turn on his body-worn camera before the shooting. Browder told investigators Nehad was aggressive toward him, failed to respond to verbal commands, and was holding a knife in his hand. After the shooting, Browder realized the dying Nehad was holding a blue pen.
With no police video to review, the officer’s account was retold to the media and the public.
“A San Diego police officer fatally shot a 42-year-old man reported to be threatening people with a knife at an adult bookstore in the Midway District early Thursday, authorities said,” read a San Diego Union-Tribune article the next morning.
The same story quotes homicide Capt. David Nisleit as saying Officer Browder “found the suspect just outside the store. Gave the suspect some verbal commands. The suspect didn’t comply with those commands” and was shot. Nisleit is now the San Diego Police Chief.
But during the investigation, police found security camera footage from a nearby business that showed Officer Browder drove up to Nehad without his emergency lights on, opened the police car door, and shot Nehad within 5 seconds of arriving on scene. Browder later admitted under oath that he didn’t have time to identify himself or yell commands to deescalate the incident before shooting.
The video proved there were no aggressive moves toward the officer, no knife, and plenty of misinformation -if not flat out lies- made by police during the investigation.
The City fought the case for years, but this week agreed to the settlement just weeks before the trial was to start.
Last week, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department released a public service video allegedly showing a one of their Deputies experiencing an overdose from contact with Fentanyl, the most deadly drug on the streets.
The video claimed that officers came into contact with Fentanyl during a traffic stop and arrest of a suspect. The video shows a young Deputy failing to the ground and appearing in distress until his partner administers posed of Narcan, an inhaler used to treat opioid drug overdoses.
Local media promoted and parroted the Sheriff’s claims of an overdose, extolling the virtues of the drug antidote, and promoted the narrative that first responders face life-threatening situations in their encounters with dangerous street drugs.
But then medical professionals and drug experts weighed in saying that there are no documented cases of a drug overdose from incidental contact with Fentanyl. They questioned the Sheriff’s claims of an overdose that could spread misinformation or false fear and lead first responders and others to withhold urgent medical treatment from someone experiencing a real overdose for fear of exposure.
Within days, under pressure from media and the public, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore admitted that he alone made the determination that the incident was a drug overdose and that no medical tests were conducted on the Deputy to confirm an OD. What may have seemed like a good PR video turned into an embarrassment for the Sheriff and his team.
Gore recently announced that he will not seek a fourth term as Sheriff next year, but he has already endorsed his Undersheriff, Kelly Martinez, to replace him. Martinez made statements when the video was first released saying the Deputy “either ingested it or inhaled, some of the powder got into the air through movement or motion while he was testing it, or perhaps dermally through his skin.” In the end those claims were untrue, too.
Doctors now think it may have been an anxiety attack from the perceived dangers of Fentanyl that led the Deputy to pass out. The same type of over-exaggerated fear of the drug that the video itself spread may have led to the medical situation in this case.
And who can forget the May 11th incident in La Jolla where two SDPD officers confronted and assaulted Jesse Evans after they thought he had urinated in public although he hadn’t actually done so. The police beating left Evans in the hospital, but, luckily, not dead.
In that case, San Diego Police first claimed it was withholding 911 calls related to the incident as documents exempt from disclosure under state public records laws, but then changed its story only after La Prensa San Diego sued to compel the disclosure of the calls. Now the City claims there were no 911 calls in the first place and has agreed to settle the LPSD lawsuit with an admission of making an error and paying our legal fees in the case.
These are only three of several police-related incidents in recent years where the first information released by law enforcement agencies turned out to be wrong -or false- when investigated further.
In the deadly cases of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020 and Angel Hernandez in San Diego in 2019, the first reports from police simply said the men experienced medical emergencies while being arrested.
It was only later that video evidence showed that both men were killed when someone was knelling on their backs while the victims laid handcuffed on the ground in the prone position for several minutes until they stopped breathing.
Far too often, the media is an unwitting accomplice by relying on information from police and amplifying false or misleading narratives without first independently fact-checking the information.
We must be able to trust and rely on the police that serve us. We must be able to believe their stories. We must hold any of them that violate the law accountable.
Trust is hard to earn, easy to break, and even harder to rebuild after a violation.
Police should not feel victimized when the public loses confidence in them, questions their narratives, and investigates their actions.
They have brought this crisis of confidence upon themselves by their actions and now only they can start to fix it by working openly, honestly, and exhaustively to rebuild the trust their job so desperately requires.