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District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said Tuesday she decided to release surveillance video of a disputed police-involved shooting from April because she wanted to provide the public with everything people needed to know about the incident. In two days, because of Voice of San Diego and other local media’s efforts in court, the deceased’s family would have been allowed to make the video public. Releasing the video on its own, Dumanis said, would have been irresponsible.
“The video in and of itself does not tell the complete story and I think it’s important for the public to see, in evaluating that, the complete picture of what happened,” Dumanis said.
But Dumanis’ own presentation did not live up to her words. She showed the surveillance video at an hour-long news conference along with a litany of other information carefully curated to back her perspective that Officer Neal Browder’s shooting of 42-year-old Fridoon Rawshan Nehad in an alleyway in the city’s Midway district was justified. She didn’t release significant evidence from the case, including Browder’s initial interview with homicide investigators after the incident.
The entire strategy, including the release of video footage and selective release of other evidence, could be an indication of what’s to come after future police-involved shootings in San Diego. Dumanis said she and other top local law enforcement officials were revising their stance that no shooting videos should be made public outside a courtroom.
The information Dumanis released Tuesday was designed to show two things: that the officer had reason to believe he was in danger when he shot Nehad and that Browder acted compassionately afterward. In addition to the video, Dumanis made public:
• Surveillance video from before the shooting that she said showed Nehad was threatening employees of an adult bookstore and nearby strip club with what witnesses believed to have been a knife (Nehad did not have a knife, but rather a pen)
• Surveillance video that showed Nehad putting away a knife sheath before the shooting
• Photos of the sheath and the pen Nehad was carrying. After showing a photo of the pen, Dumanis held up actual knives she said could easily have been mistaken for Nehad’s pen.
• Video of Nehad twirling the pen in what the district attorney said was a knife-like manner
• Body camera footage from SDPD officers who responded to the scene after the shooting, which showed Browder asking for gauze and otherwise trying to help Nehad after shooting him. Browder himself did not turn on his body camera prior to the shooting.
Dumanis even edited the surveillance footage itself. The original footage contained no sound, but Dumanis overlaid police radio traffic communicating to Browder that Nehad had a knife.
Dumanis’ presentation was convincing in showing that Browder had reason to believe he was walking into a situation involving someone armed with a knife. But the video revealed key facts that show why the case is so disputed. Browder did not turn on his overhead lights when entering the alleyway. He got out of his vehicle and did not keep the door of his police car between Nehad and himself. The whole incident happened very quickly – in about 30 seconds. The video showed that Nehad was slowing his pace and might have even stopped immediately before Browder shot him from what Dumanis said was 17 feet away. (Dumanis also showed at the press conference a still of an enhanced image from the video that she said indicated Nehad was still moving.)
In general, prosecutors have a very high bar to prove that on-duty police shootings were not justified, and Dumanis reiterated the evidence clearly showed that it was reasonable for Browder to believe Nehad was threatening him.
But in all the evidence Dumanis released, she did not make public everything that was relevant to the case. Most notably, she left out Browder’s initial statement to homicide investigators after the shooting – a key piece of information the media had specifically requested and that’s still barred from release until Thursday.
When asked about Browder’s statement, Dumanis said she quoted from it in her letter outlining her reasons not to prosecute the officer. She said she was not going to release everything from the case’s investigative file.
“We’re not going to have a trial in the media,” Dumanis said.
Nehad’s family, with whom Dumanis did not consult prior to announcing her press conference, said in a statement that the district attorney’s review of the evidence on Tuesday was misleading. The family, through its attorneys, disputed the distance between Browder and Nehad and specifically called out the video demonstration of a butterfly knife as irrelevant, among other criticisms.
“The video makes clear that Fridoon was not an imminent threat and that the officer had options available besides killing Fridoon,” the family’s statement said.
News conferences like the one Dumanis held Tuesday could become commonplace from now on in disputed police shootings. Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman has been steadfast in her refusal to release this video and police body camera footage despite initial indications the department would be transparent with police videos. In this case, Zimmerman even invoked the fear of riots in the streets in arguing to keep the footage secret.
But Dumanis said she and other law enforcement officials are recognizing that stance might be untenable given the public’s demand to see video. She, Zimmerman, Sheriff Bill Gore and U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy have been meeting to develop a new policy for releasing police video footage and expect to have a decision within the next three months, Dumanis said.