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At an unprecedented press conference three days before Christmas, where she proactively released a video of the police shooting of Fridoon Nehad that she had fought hard to keep secret, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis batted away questions about why she would not also release the officer’s statement about what happened.
Media organizations, including ours, had joined together to fight for access not only to the video but to the statement.
“Why not open the entire file?” she asked, flippantly, as though that would be ridiculous.
I asked, yes, why not?
“We’re not going to have a trial in the media,” she answered. (The officer’s statement was later released by Nehad’s family, thanks to the media’s intervention to unseal those documents.)
What Dumanis should have said was that we were not going to have a trial in the media of the officer involved in the shooting, Neal Browder. Dumanis was absolutely willing to try in the media the man who was killed.
Methodically, expertly, Dumanis laid out the many things Fridoon Nehad had done to merit his death. She even showed a video of someone else twirling a butterfly knife to help people visualize how menacing Nehad might have looked as he twirled a pen.
Even the prosecutor in Cleveland, who similarly suggested 12-year-old Tamir Rice was at fault for his own death, at least met with Rice’s family, expressed condolences, called it a tragedy and told the public it was a “perfect storm of human error, mistakes and miscommunication.”
Dumanis acknowledged no such regret.
Not once did she say what happened was a mistake or a tragedy. She offered no hint that what happened was not the desired outcome. The only mistakes or bad actions were those of the deceased. The only problem she addressed was our society’s approach to mental illness. That was the only discussion she said the shooting and the controversial video should provoke: “how to better help the homeless who suffer from mental illness in San Diego County.”
Thus, if a mentally ill person acts threatening, brandishes what is interpreted as a knife, gets the police called on him and then approaches a responding police officer late at night at a slow pace, he should expect to be killed.
That was what I was taking away from Dumanis’s closing statement. Should anyone who does the same also should expect to be killed? I asked Dumanis that. This is the point of these discussions, no? To better understand at what point agents of the local government have the right to kill civilians.
Dumanis said every situation is different. And then she said this: “I can say one thing the public should be aware of is that if an officer says to stop, you ought to stop. If an officer says to drop the knife, you ought to drop the knife.”
There is the problem that Nehad was not carrying a knife to drop. And though the officer believed Nehad was going to stab him, it is not obvious that Nehad was still walking or that he knew the car he was approaching was an officer’s. The district attorney, recognizing the importance of proving that Nehad was in fact still walking when he was shot, showed an enhanced slide from the video to prove that he was raising a foot.
While two witnesses heard the officer command Nehad to drop “the knife” or “it,” another did not and the officer himself is unsure if he said anything.
This was Dumanis’s case. It is pretty good as an explanation for why she did not prosecute Browder for murder or manslaughter.
But she had already made that decision and explained it several weeks before.
The press conference was a follow-up intended to help people understand the whole incident. In that, it was horribly inadequate. Dumanis was so determined to prove her decision not to prosecute Browder was correct that she didn’t bother to acknowledge even the possibility that something had gone wrong.
Nehad’s family said it was just a “continued attempt to demonize Fridoon.” And they were right. We’ve heard about everything wrong with Nehad — his previous run-ins, his drug use, his mental health. The press conference served no purpose but to plaster him as deserving of what he got.
If that was not the purpose, then it should have included something more. Unless you’re willing to say that Nehad should have died and that this was the expected, desired outcome of the encounter between him and Browder, then you have to admit something went wrong and discuss it.
That’s the conversation Dumanis was not willing to have. It is not one San Diego’s mayor and police chief apparently want to have either. They did everything they could to avoid it — to hide the video as though we were not mature enough to handle it.
They know that if they can just prove Nehad was dangerous and not part of “us” then we won’t be worried. We survive on the myth that as long as we don’t do drugs, don’t stroll through dark alleys behind adult book stores and aren’t mentally ill, we will not encounter police officers and therefore don’t have to worry about their trigger fingers.
But Nehad’s family is just as removed from those things as anyone else. They are successful, intelligent people who, like many others, could not just cage a brother and son who was mentally ill. How many of us have friends and family members who descend into addiction, lose their homes or their minds?
A fellow police officer accused Nehad’s family of just wanting a payday. But again, unless you think this was the expected and ideal outcome of the encounter between a government law enforcement officer and a sick civilian late at night, Nehad’s family is the only one trying to expose what went wrong and hold people accountable for it.
And something did go wrong. We have to be more comfortable exploring what it was.