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A San Diego police officer shot an unarmed, mentally ill man in this alley in San Diego’s Midway neighborhood. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

One of the most disturbing things about the case of Fridoon Nehad, an unarmed man who was shot by a San Diego Police Officer in the Midway District in 2015, was the obstinate refusal of any city or county official to describe the death of an unarmed person at the hands of a state actor as something less than optimal.

Here’s how VOSD’s Scott Lewis described it in 2016, after then-District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis released – as a result of a court order we pursued – video footage of the incident:

“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.”

Of course, the discussion surrounding police use of force has changed dramatically since then. Reforms that were roundly rejected by law enforcement and other officials are suddenly on the table.

And when you consider those reforms and the conversation now, it’s become even clearer that what happened to Nehad was, indeed, not a desirable outcome.

Put simply: Virtually every single action taken by the officer who shot Nehad, Neal Browder, has since been banned  by state law or local policy.

This week, for example, the San Diego Police Department announced it was implementing new de-escalation techniques.

They include, as outlined by the mayor’s office:

  • Creating distance and a buffer zone between the officer and the subject
  • Establishing an effective line of communication with the subject, considering factors such as mental illness, possible intoxication, and potential medical or physical conditions
  • Considering other available resources, including specialized units, psychiatric emergency response team clinicians, and negotiators.

Browder did not create distance between him and Nehad – quite the opposite. He immediately got out of his car and moved toward him. He did not establish an effective line of communication – indeed, he did not even activate the lights on his patrol car to suggest he was a police officer, nor did he identify himself as an officer or give Nehad any commands before shooting him. Though Nehad suffered from mental illness, no resources specially equipped to handle those challenges were deployed.

Then there’s AB 392, the new state law limiting police use of deadly force.

AB 392 stipulates that deadly force is authorized “To defend against an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or to another person” (emphasis mine) and clarifies that “an imminent harm is not merely a fear of future harm, no matter how great the fear and no matter how great the likelihood of the harm, but is one that, from appearances, must be instantly confronted and addressed.” Because Nehad was unarmed, and wasn’t advancing toward Browder, it’s not clear whether he represented an imminent threat.

AB 392 also notes that an officer shouldn’t be protected when his or her own actions contribute to the circumstances that necessitated the deployment of force. That is important in the Nehad case, because Browder made the decision not to announce himself, and to leave his vehicle.

If Browder’s actions were appropriate, then why have they all since been banned by state law and the very department that employs him?

City officials and SDPD have made many public gestures lately aimed at ensuring they understand the gravity of this moment. But the real test will be the next time an unarmed citizen is dead at the hands of a police officer – and whether the city blames the deceased, or the one who pulled the trigger.

What VOSD Learned This Week

This week saw some dramatic developments in storylines we’ve been watching for years.

County supervisors killed the Lilac Hills development after the fire safety concerns that have existed with the project for years were seen in a new light following a series of catastrophic wildfires.

And over in the Sweetwater Union High School District, a damning state audit found evidence that district officials engaged in fraud by misrepresenting their finances. The superintendent, implicated in the report, is now on leave.

***

Neither of the candidates for mayor has made criminal justice reform a central priority throughout their careers, but the issue has been suddenly thrust to the forefront of the race. Andy Keatts also examined the rapidly shifting reform conversation in town.

The conversation is changing at MTS, too, where a new slate of board members is pushing for reform after years of public complaints about the agency’s aggressive ticketing. The agency’s police chief has said he doesn’t believe MTS officers are subject to the state’s new use-of-force law.

***

A lawsuit against a La Jolla senior facility over the death of a man who died after contracting COVID-19 could be a sign of more legal fights to come. And though state and county officials have pushed for mass COVID-19 testing in nursing homes, those plans leave out another type of senior care venue, assisted living facilities.

What I’m Reading

Line of the Week

“Ending the pandemic would have been the single best thing the federal government could have done to preserve the country’s wealth, health, and economic functioning. The Trump administration, in its hubris, obstinacy, and incompetence, failed to do it.” – No one makes economics reporting as compelling or human as Annie Lowrey.

Sara Libby

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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