Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

The bad information started with the 911 call itself.

A caller told the dispatcher that a man was threatening people with a knife in the Midway District.

But Fridoon Nehad, a 42-year-old man whose family settled in Southern California after fleeing violence in Afghanistan, did not have a knife. He was holding a pen.

The San Diego Police Department officer who responded to the call, Neal Browder, then made a series of decisions that deprived Nehad of crucial information that could have saved his life, and deprived the public of a full picture of what happened.

Late last week, the city of San Diego and Nehad’s family announced they will settle a lawsuit in which the family alleged not only that Browder violated Nehad’s civil rights, but that the San Diego Police Department “engaged in longstanding customs and practices of excessive force and [refused] to adequately investigate its officer-involved shootings.” It brings to a close a case that has for six years been marked by secrecy and misinformation at every possible turn.

We only know what happened because of the work of outside actors – the family, who filed a lawsuit; the media, who intervened to unseal documents; and state lawmakers, who passed new laws to bolster transparency in the wake of deadly police shootings – who pushed for details and policy changes over the objections of city and county law enforcement officials.

The Initial Information Vacuum

Just like that fateful 911 call, the first reports about the shooting – made public by police officials and published by local media outlets – were characterized by falsehoods and information gaps.

Take the first San Diego Union-Tribune story on the incident.

Nehad didn’t have a knife. SDPD officials knew this by the time they spoke to the media, but didn’t mention it. Browder later said in a deposition that he saw the object in Fridoon’s hand was actually a pen seconds after he pulled the trigger, as he attempted to render aid.

Browder did not shout any commands.

Browder shot Nehad almost immediately – within two to three seconds – of exiting his police cruiser, without engaging in a number of practices that could have alerted Nehad to the fact that he was a police officer and possibly de-escalated the situation. He did not illuminate the lights on his vehicle. He did not announce himself as an officer.

Though the only footage of the incident is sound-less, Browder acknowledged in the deposition that he didn’t use any de-escalation techniques, including offering verbal commands or hand gestures. “I didn’t have time, no,” Browder said under oath.

Nehad was not advancing toward the officer when he was shot. Footage shows he was either slowing to a stop, or perhaps even backpedaling.

Browder’s body-worn camera was “not operating” because he didn’t turn it on.

SDPD policy at the time only advised that officers “should” activate their body-worn cameras prior to arriving at a call.

The watchdog group that reviews officer-involved shootings in the city, however, noted in its review that Browder “had ample time to activate his [body-worn camera].” That report recommended that SDPD should change its policy to require that officers “shall” activate their cameras prior to arriving to a call. SDPD agreed, and changed the language.

That wasn’t the only footage that could provide a window into what happened, though.

The security camera from a nearby business was on, and captured the shooting. That was news to Nehad’s family, who were not made aware of the existence of the footage until after they’d filed a lawsuit. But even once it was entered into the court record, it was placed under seal – meaning that unlike most documents in the case, it was shielded from public view. (One person who was allowed to see the footage, though, was Browder: He and his attorney were allowed to watch it multiple times before he gave a statement to homicide investigators.)

An employee of the business whose camera captured the footage watched it at least 20 times before turning it over. He described something much different than police’s version of events: He said Browder’s actions were “shocking” and “unprovoked” and that the shooting happened “hastily.”

VOSD led a group of media outlets in an effort to unseal the footage – and won.

It should have been a victory for transparency – finally, members of the public could see for themselves what had happened. But in a truly bizarre twist, the release of the footage became the catalyst for the most brazen manipulation of facts in the case yet.

The Butterfly Knife Presser

After being ordered by a federal judge to release the security footage, then-District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis did so – sort of.

At a press conference, Dumanis played for members of the media an edited version of the footage, overlaid with audio from police dispatchers and closed captioning, tailored to convey that Browder had acted reasonably.

But before she showed the edited footage, Dumanis did something remarkable. She played an unrelated YouTube video of a person twirling a butterfly knife – a weapon Nehad was not carrying – to emphasize the danger Browder might have perceived.

Yet “the knife in the video was much larger than a pen, and the man in the video twirled it in front of his body in larger movements, not in a lowered hand as the video of Nehad showed,” KPBS and inewsource noted at the time.

When asked why she wouldn’t disclose more information in the case, Dumanis replied, “We’re not going to have a trial in the media.”

Yet “Dumanis was absolutely willing to try in the media the man who was killed,” VOSD’s Scott Lewis wrote at the time. “Methodically, expertly, Dumanis laid out the many things Fridoon Nehad had done to merit his death.”

Dumanis said at the press conference that if there were a lesson to be learned in the ordeal, it was for the public, not the police: “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.”

In that one statement, Dumanis threw the credibility of her office behind two major falsehoods. Browder did not issue any commands to drop the knife. And Nehad didn’t have a knife to begin with.

The ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties published a highly critical response to Dumanis’ press conference. “The edited video in the Nehad shooting may have seemed like a clear-cut, justifiable shooting to San Diego’s law enforcement authorities, but to many in the public, it appeared to be more like an execution,” the group wrote. “If anything, the video raises more questions than answers; questions whose resolutions are essential to rebuilding trust in local law enforcement, which is in every police officer’s best interest.”

Even the Police Themselves – and Their Watchdog – Couldn’t Get Information

Law enforcement groups have for years lobbied against measures that would require them to disclose more information about deadly police shootings to the public. But the Nehad case also laid bare the extent to which even police officers themselves couldn’t access basic information about what happened.

When a deadly police shooting takes place, SDPD’s Internal Affairs unit is tasked with investigating.

But the police sergeant investigating the shooting wasn’t allowed to interview Browder as part of his probe, after a police official rejected the request, the independent watchdog group reviewing the case noted in its report.

Officials from SDPD and the district attorney’s office also withheld key information from the review board.

Dumanis commissioned an outside report of the case, but wouldn’t give it to the board. Nor did her office provide audio tapes of several witness interviews. That curated security footage video of the incident, which Dumanis made public at a special event in front of the media? Even that was off the table.

And in a twist that truly underscores it all, the documents revealing just how much was kept from Internal Affairs investigators and the review board were themselves kept under seal for years. The city only made them public after state lawmakers passed SB 1421, requiring governments to disclose certain documents in the aftermath of police shootings.

That law, and the depositions and other documents released as a result of the federal lawsuit, have provided the lion’s share of the details illuminating how the shooting played out, and what happened afterward.

The settlement, which still must be approved by the San Diego City Council, will end the case – and with it will also end the steady drip of information about what really happened.

It’s perhaps fitting, then, that a case that was set to put the San Diego Police Department’s practices and culture on trial – practices of immense public interest – will instead end with an agreement hashed out behind closed doors.

As for Browder, he was included on an October 2020 SDPD roster of its officers. I tried to confirm with SDPD officials that he was still a member of the force, but they didn’t respond to my questions.

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

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