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ACLU Calls For Federal Investigation Into SDPD’s Handling Of Mentally Ill

An officer stands at the scene where a man was shot in the Midway District, A...

Credit: 10News

Above: An officer stands at the scene where a man was shot in the Midway District, April 30, 2015.

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The American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego & Imperials Counties, along with 26 San Diego attorneys and civil-rights groups, sent a letter to the U.S. Attorney General's Office urging it to review the San Diego Police Department's handling of incidents involving the mentally ill.

The letter is in response to the fatal shooting in April of Fridoon Rawshan Nehad, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis decided not to file charges against Officer Neal Browder, who shot Nehad shortly after arriving at the call in the Midway District. Witnesses reported Nehad had a knife; Browder mistook a pen Nehad was twirling as the knife.

Dumanis said the shooting was justified because Browder believed his life was in danger. She could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The ACLU letter draws on a number of other incidents it says show a pattern of improperly handling incidents involving the mentally ill and people in crisis.

"A series of incidents raises serious concerns that SDPD has a pattern or practice of violating the fundamental rights of people with mental illness or experiencing a mental health crisis," the letter says. "These encounters are marked by the questionable use of lethal force in incidents that officers may have unnecessarily escalated. The incidents suggest that the SDPD has made an insufficient effort to supply necessary training and resources for responding to matters involving the mentally ill."

In a statement, Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman said the number of mental health calls her department has received has skyrocketed and she welcomes the opportunity to work as a community on the problem.

“No police officer comes to work wanting to be involved in a shooting. Our training strategy focuses on de-escalating situations and deploying the appropriate resources to safely resolve an unstable situation. San Diego Police Officers responded to over 18,000 mental health calls for service last year alone. This is a 100% increase in the last seven years. Public safety is a shared responsibility. The rising mental health crisis facing society today demands the attention of more than just those families who are dealing with mental illness of a loved one. We welcome the opportunity to work together to assist those who are suffering from mental illness.”

On KPBS Midday Edition Thursday, Theresa Bish, former chair of the San Diego County Mental Health Advisory Board, said in her experience the Police Department has been responsive to calls for more training on handling the mentally ill.

Bish said "some of the liability rests with county Mental Health Services." She said Nehad was known to the county, but a lack of services and legal tools for his family meant Nehad was on and off treatment. She said Laura's Law, which allows court-ordered outpatient treatment and will go into effect in San Diego later this year, might have prevented the incident and subsequent shooting.

David Loy, legal director for the ACLU in San Diego, defended the organization's call for scrutiny of the Police Department.

"There is definitely a larger issue involved, in the fact that as a society we have improperly delegated the treatment of mental illness to the police and criminal justice system," Loy said on Midday Edition. "But putting that to one side, police officers have a gun and a badge and they have the power to kill someone. And too many people are dying.

"That training didn't take effect when the officer killed Mr. Nehad," Loy continued. "It's a symptom of a pattern, where an officer jumps out of a car and within five or 10 seconds has killed a man."

A video of the April shooting released in December after KPBS and several other news organizations filed a lawsuit for the footage shows Browder did not use less lethal force before pulling his gun on Nehad, who appeared to slow when he reached Browder's cruiser. The cruiser didn't have its flashing lights on. The footage doesn't include audio, but three witnesses told investigators they heard Browder tell Nehad to stop.

In a news release sent by the ACLU, Nehad's sister Benny Roshan said she is heartened by the call for an investigation.

“Too many families like ours have had loved ones violently wrenched from them," she said. "The volume suggests that the SDPD has declined to provide necessary training and resources to officers who respond to calls involving the mentally ill to achieve more humane outcomes.”

Nehad's family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city and the officer.


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