The ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, along with 26 civil rights, social service organizations, and law firms today asked the Federal government for an investigation into the SDPD’s use of force when encountering people living with mental illness.
An inquiry by the ACLU, following the police shooting of a mentally ill man holding a pen, and the district attorney’s decision not to press charges against the officer, revealed what they believe was a disturbing pattern and practice of improperly handling incidents with people with mental illness or who are experiencing a mental health crisis by SDPD personnel.
The series of incidents detailed in the ACLU letter to the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division point to a questionable use of lethal force, in numerous incidents, which appear to have been unnecessarily escalated with tragic results.
“These deadly incidents cannot be ignored, particularly because they continue in spite of the Department of Justice’s recent report documenting longstanding leadership and accountability failures within the San Diego Police Department,” said David Loy, legal director of the San Diego ACLU. “The fact that these violent encounters span a period of years demonstrates either an inability or unwillingness on the part of the SDPD to learn from experience and take measures to avoid similar incidents in the future.”
In several incidents detailed by the ACLU, SDPD officers used lethal force within only minutes of arriving at the scene. The group’s press release pointed out that “Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires “reasonable accommodations” to be made for a person with a disability who is being questioned or arrested by police officers. Types of accommodations include: attempting to defuse a potentially violent situation, waiting for back up, or employing less confrontational tactics.”
The Department of Justice is being asked to investigate the cause of recurring incidents of use of force against mentally ill people, including determining and exploring:
- Why the police initiated or escalated the confrontations;
- Why officers perceived a threat from certain individuals;
- Whether officers are properly trained in de-escalation tactics;
- Whether SDPD supervisors properly gather evidence and fully investigate when excessive force is alleged;
- Why there are contradictions between initial statements of officers and other evidence;
- Whether the SDPD and the City of San Diego have allocated sufficient resources to train personnel to respond to incidents involving mental health issues; and
- Whether officers have made reasonable accommodations for people’s disabilities before employing lethal force and other force.
The letter also requests that the DOJ provide technical assistance, advice, and guidance to the City of San Diego to help improve equality, fairness, and public safety throughout San Diego.
It was signed by:
Norma Chávez-Peterson, Executive Director ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties
Gretchen Burns Bergman, Co-Founder & Executive Director A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment & Healing)
Susana Juarez, Board Member Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) San Diego
Andrea Guerrero, Executive Director Alliance San Diego
Jim Miller, Vice President American Federation of Teachers, Local 1931
Pedro Rios, Program Director, US/Mexico Border Program American Friends Service Committee
Mark Faucette, Vice President Amity Foundation
Clare Crawford, Executive Director Center on Policy Initiatives
Hanif Mohebi, Executive Director Council on American-Islamic Relations, San Diego Chapter Alor F. Calderon, Director Employee Rights Center
Julia Yoo, Esq. Iredale and Yoo
Michael Hopkins, Chief Executive Officer Jewish Family Service of San Diego
Thomas E. Robertson, Esq. Law Office of Thomas E. Robertson
Joseph M. McMullen, Esq. Law Offices of Joseph M. McMullen
Dr. André J. Branch, President NAACP San Diego Branch
Gracelynne West, Political Action and Awareness Coordinator National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), San Diego Chapter
Pedro Silva, Organizing Director Partners for Progress San Diego
Ramla Sahid, Executive Director Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans – PANA Paul Alexander, President Pillars of the Community
Dale Kelly Bankhead, Acting Secretary-Treasurer San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, AFL-CIO
Clovis Honoré, Executive Director San Diego Area Black Health Associates / San Diego Area Congregations for Change
Luis O. Osuna, Esq., President San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association
David Garcias, President SEIU Local 221
Gerald Singleton, Esq. Singleton Law Firm, APC
Rabbi Laurie Coskey, Executive Director The Interfaith Center for Worker Justice
Will Williams, Advocacy Manager Urban League of San Diego County
Incidents Cited in The ACLU Letter
April 30, 2015: Fridoon Rawshan Nehad was an immigrant from Afghanistan who had battled mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder ever since being captured and likely tortured while serving in the Afghan army. He was walking in a dark alley when San Diego Police Officer Neal Browder, who was responding to a call about a disturbance involving Mr. Nehad, pulled into the alley without activating his siren or light bars, but with his headlights on and shining in Mr. Nehad’s direction, likely making it difficult for Mr. Nehad to see or identify the officer. Officer Browder, who had mistakenly been informed that Mr. Nehad was carrying a knife, exited his vehicle and shot and killed Mr. Nehad within two or three seconds. While the SDPD initially claimed that a “knife-wielding man charged at [Officer Browder] prompting him to open fire,” Mr. Nehad in fact held only a blue pen, not a knife, and never charged or threatened the officer who killed him. We know, only because the shooting was captured on video, that Mr. Nehad had come to a stop twenty-five feet away from Officer Browder when he was shot.
The San Diego Police Department failed to interview Officer Browder immediately after the shooting, or to test him for drugs or alcohol. While Officer Browder initially admitted at the scene of the shooting that Mr. Nehad had no weapon, they cut off questioning at this point, and only resumed questioning five days later, after Officer Browder and his attorney had watched the video of the incident. The San Diego County District Attorney declined to press charges against Officer Browder, and there has been no public announcement indicating that he has received any disciplinary action from SDPD command.
The District Attorney’s actions betray a lack of impartiality in evaluating officer-involved shootings such as Mr. Nehad’s. After initially resisting release of the surveillance footage that captured Mr. Nehad’s killing, saying that it could lead the public to “rush to judgment” because it would be viewed out of context, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis ultimately released an edited version of the video on December 22, 2015, just after U.S. District Judge William Hayes ruled that Mr. Nehad’s family could release the footage on December 24.
While Dumanis had justified her earlier refusal to release the video by saying that “We’re not going to have a trial in the media,” she in fact tried Mr. Nehad in the press, not only suggesting that he was responsible for his own death, but going so far as to show a completely unrelated video “of someone else twirling a butterfly knife to help visualize how menacing Mr. Nehad might have looked as he twirled a pen.”
February 16, 2015: When a naked Philip McMahon, 27 years old, started pounding on his neighbor’s window in the Mira Mesa neighborhood of San Diego, the home’s residents quite reasonably called the police. By the time an officer arrived, McMahon had broken the window, and was standing in a pool of blood and glass. The San Diego Police Department claims that McMahon charged the officer, whose Taser was ineffective. The officer shot McMahon, and the bullet shattered his collarbone and tore through his jugular vein. McMahon survived the incident, likely due only to the efforts of his co-workers at the hospital where he was employed.
July 13, 2014: A family member called the police when 21-year-old Ja Ma Lo Day, a Burmese refugee who had struggled with mental illness, threatened to kill family members. By the time officers arrived, Day’s family members had left the home, and Day was inside, alone, and holding a knife and stick. Police had difficulty speaking with Day, who understood little English. But, according to a family friend who knew Day from her volunteer work with a refugee assistance organization, the police failed to use a translator or bull horn to communicate with him, and instead broke down the door and sent in a police dog within twenty minutes of their arrival at the scene. Day responded to the police by grabbing a machete and threatening to kill the officers when they confronted him. After Day injured the dog with his machete, two officers fired at Day, who suffered multiple gunshot wounds and died of his injuries. Mr. Day’s sister was devastated by the thought that, if she hadn’t called 911, Mr. Day “would still be alive.”
May 20, 2010: Nathan Manning, who had a long history of mental illness and had stopped taking his medication was killed by San Diego Police Detective Edward Jones. There is a serious discrepancy between the way the events leading up to Manning’s death have been portrayed by the San Diego Police Department and District Attorney’s office, on one hand, and by Manning’s family on the other.
The SDPD and DA say that Detective Jones came to the scene of a violent fight between Manning and his roommate, Tom Montes. They claim that Detective Jones initially attempted to calm Manning down, but that this attempt failed. According to this account, Detective Jones resorted to lethal force only after Manning charged him, and began to choke him, and only as he became afraid that he would lose consciousness. San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis concluded that “Detective Jones fired at Mr. Manning in selfdefense and he therefore bears no criminal liability for his actions.”
In contrast, Mr. Montes has told local media that he and Mr. Manning were not fighting when Detective Jones arrived, and Mr. Montes’ family has emphasized that, while he had bipolar disorder and manic episodes, those episodes never turned violent. The family reported being frustrated by alleged inconsistencies in the SDPD’s press release and media accounts, and by the SDPD’s refusal to provide them with a copy of the police report.
April 26, 2010: Bradford Sarten was diagnosed with mental illness in the early 1980s, and had been committed numerous times in the years between his initial diagnosis and his death decades later. On the day of his death, Mr. Sarten’s family members called the SDPD to their home to evaluate Mr. Sarten’s mental health. When the officers entered the home and saw Mr. Sarten in the kitchen, they ordered him to come out. He emerged with a knife in his hands, and, according to San Diego police Lieutenant Kevin Rooney, he told the officers that they would have to kill him. When he “advanced toward the officers with the knife,” one officer fired his gun. Sarten died at a hospital