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The meeting notes are time-stamped 7:24 p.m., hours after a federal judge ruled that the family of a man fatally shot by a San Diego police officer in April could release surveillance video of the shooting.
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They were sent by San Diego police Capt. David Nisleit to himself. And that’s all the city says the public has the right to know.
The rest of the one-and-a-half-page memo — including the subject line — is blacked out. The city disclosed the document in response to a California Public Records Act request filed by inewsource in January.
inewsource asked for all communications from Dec. 16 through Dec. 23 involving Nisleit and the shooting of Fridoon Nehad, who was killed by San Diego police Officer Neal Browder in a Midway District alley. Nisleit oversees the Police Department’s homicide investigations.
The dates were significant. They covered the day U.S. District Judge William Hayes ruled that Nehad’s family could release footage of the shooting and continued through the day after a news conference by San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, during which she released the video and other information about the shooting.
Several news organizations, including inewsource and KPBS, had filed the motion that led to the judge saying the family could make the video public.
The city identified one document, which included meeting notes, in response to the records request. But it was redacted, the city said, because otherwise the notes would “discourage candid discussion” among police officials and jeopardize the Police Department’s ability to protect the public.
“I’m always troubled when police withhold records … when they don’t have to,” said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a California-based nonprofit group that focuses on free speech and open government.
Scheer said the city cited a broad, catch-all legal exemption that government agencies commonly use to withhold documents. He said the city’s decision to redact the notes was discretionary.
The shooting has attracted much media scrutiny because it turned out that Nehad was unarmed the night he was killed, though reports to police before the shooting said he had a knife. The surveillance video also raised doubts that the 42-year-old man posed a threat to the officer.
In November, Dumanis concluded that the shooting was justified. But Nehad’s family is suing the Police Department in a federal wrongful death lawsuit.
In its records request, inewsource asked the city to find documents using specific search terms, including the names of Browder, Dumanis and Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman. The nonprofit news organization made a similar request to the District Attorney’s Office for the communications of Fiona Khalil, the deputy district attorney who handled the shooting investigation. The DA’s Office said no relevant records were found.
Before the judge’s ruling, the district attorney strongly opposed making the video public. After the judge’s ruling, Dumanis pre-empted the family’s release of the video at her news conference on Dec. 22, during which she showed reporters the video and other selected evidence.
Dumanis did not release Browder’s statement about what happened the night of the shooting. The day after the news conference, the attorney for Nehad’s family made public a report showing two conflicting statements Browder made during interviews with police.
In the first interview, Browder said he didn’t notice that Nehad was carrying a weapon. In the second interview, the officer said he saw a metal object that he believed to be a knife.
It later turned out to be a pen.
The city released the meeting notes to inewsource on March 7, but with the extensive redactions. The only parts not blacked out are the date, time and Nisleit’s name. (The name of a police official who handles records requests is also listed at the top of the document.)
In a statement explaining the redactions, Lea Fields-Bernard, the city’s Public Records Act request coordinator, wrote that the Police Department decided that “nondisclosure clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the meeting notes.”
“These meetings are not open to the public and allow the heads of the department to converse in open dialogue regarding key issues,” Field-Bernard continued.
Scheer, of the First Amendment Coalition, said the city did not argue that releasing the memo without redactions would cause specific harm or compromise privacy.
He added that it’s possible the notes could show the police were acting responsibly, in a way that could improve police-community relations. For example, he said the police could have been preparing for civil unrest in anticipation of the release of the surveillance video.
“You have to pause and say, well, given all that and the fact that the law allows them to release it, why wouldn’t they?” Scheer said. “I suppose one possible answer is because there’s something in there that might be embarrassing, there’s something in there that might be not so helpful to community relations.”
A spokeswoman for the Police Department declined to comment for this story. An attorney representing Nehad’s family did not respond to a request for comment.