San Diego media outlets, including inewsource, are challenging a federal court order prohibiting the release of security camera footage that shows the April shooting of an unarmed, mentally ill man at the hands of a San Diego police officer.
An attorney for five media outlets filed a motion in federal court Wednesday afternoon requesting that the media and the public be allowed to review surveillance video that captured city police officer Neal Browder shooting and killing 42-year-old Fridoon Rawshan Nehad outside of a Midway District adult bookstore on April 30.
The motion also requests public access to officer Browder’s statement about the shooting.
“No reason … exists to shroud the video in secrecy,” media attorney Guylyn Cummins argued in the motion. “Since no ‘good cause’ exists to shield the video or Officer Browder’s statement, and the First Amendment interests of the press and the public in understanding why and how this killing occurred are compelling, public access should be afforded.”
The legal dispute over the video comes at a time when the country is embroiled in a heated debate over police-involved shootings and officers’ use of excessive force during confrontations with citizens, especially minorities. The shooting death of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri, last year sparked riots and prompted nationwide scrutiny of police practices.
“This issue is of immense public concern in America, including San Diego,” Cummins, an inewsource board member, wrote in the motion, citing police-involved killings of unarmed citizens in New York and Maryland.
The media outlets that filed the motion seeking access to the video include Voice of San Diego, KPBS, KGTV 10 News, The San Diego Union-Tribune and inewsource.
Nehad’s family is currently suing the city in federal court.
“It’s a very disturbing video,” said Louis “Skip” Miller, an attorney for Nehad’s family who has viewed the security footage. “It’s clear as day,” he added, that the shooting was “totally unprovoked.”
Miller echoed comments made by a man who watched the video recorded by his employer’s security cameras. Wesley Doyle, an employee at KECO, Inc., said in a sworn statement filed in federal court in June that the shooting was “unprovoked” and “shocking.” Doyle’s statement was first reported by Voice of San Diego.
The city originally refused to provide the plaintiff’s attorneys with the surveillance video, according to the plaintiff’s complaint. The city and KECO later gave the plaintiff the video after the lawsuit was filed, Miller said.
Neither party involved in the lawsuit is allowed to release the video or Browder’s statement to the media or the public, according to a protective order filed by a federal judge last month. But the court notes that the protective order may be lifted “for good cause, or in the interest of justice, or for public policy reasons.”
In June, Nehad’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Browder and the city. The family’s federal lawsuit claims that the shooting was “unjustified” and that the officer “acted in reckless and callous disregard” for Nehad’s constitutional rights.
The lawsuit describes Nehad as a native of Afghanistan who suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. On the night of the shooting, according to the complaint, Nehad was walking in an alley behind a Midway District adult bookstore when officer Browder arrived in his police car in response to a 911 call.
The complaint states that Browder shot Nehad just seconds after stepping out of his car. At least one bullet hit Nehad, who later died at UCSD Medical Center.
The lawsuit cites the statements submitted by Doyle, the KECO employee, who said Browder shot Nehad “hastily.” According to Doyle’s statement, Nehad slowed down his walking pace when Browder pulled out his weapon and “came to a complete stop before Officer Browder pulled the trigger.”
“Browder did not take any time to communicate with [Nehad] and did not use any other (non-deadly) measures against” him, the family’s lawsuit states.
Doyle’s description of the security footage contradicts the city’s version of events. The city claims the shooting was justified.
According to the city’s response to the Nehad family’s lawsuit, Browder drove to the alley behind the bookstore after a caller reported to 911 that Nehad was “threatening people with a knife.” When the officer arrived, Nehad “emerged from the shadows of an alley” and headed toward Browder brandishing “a metallic pen that appeared to be a knife.”
Browder then exited his car and yelled at Nehad to drop the knife, according to the city’s response. As Browder pulled out his gun, Nehad moved to within 10 to 15 feet of the officer. Browder then fired his gun, hitting Nehad once in the chest.
“Browder reasonably believed that [Nehad] was going to harm him or others, and used only the amount of force that was reasonably necessary to protect himself or others,” Chief Deputy City Attorney Timothy Stutler wrote in the city’s response.
San Diego police officers wear body cameras on their uniforms. But officer Browder did not turn his camera on when he approached Nehad in the alley, the city acknowledged in its response. That prompted the city to change its body camera policy in May, requiring officers to turn on their cameras before they arrive at a scene.
A spokesman for the San Diego Police Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this story. Craig Gustafson, a spokesman for Mayor Kevin Faulconer, said in a statement to inewsource that “The Mayor’s Office supports the Police Chief’s decision on whether to release evidence from this investigation.”
If the security video is eventually released, the Nehad family’s attorney said the public will be able to judge on their own whether the shooting was justified.
“You’ve just gotta see it,” Miller said. “Once you get it, it’ll affect you.”
We'll let you know when big things happen.