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Roundtable: Still Waiting For Answers In Earl McNeil Death

The National City Police Department is shown in this undated photo.
Claire Trageser
The National City Police Department is shown in this undated photo.
Roundtable: Still Waiting For Answers In Earl McNeil Death
Roundtable: Still Waiting For Answers On The Death Of Earl McNeil PANEL: Erik Anderson, environment reporter, KPBS News Matthew T. Hall, editorial director, San Diego Union-Tribune Jade Hindmon, reporter, KPBS News Joshua Emerson Smith, environment reporter, San Diego Union-Tribune

What happened to Earl McNeil. That's what activists and his family are still asking officials. Nearly three months after his deadly encounter with National City Police. Some South Bay beaches are continuously fouled with sewage flowing north from Tijuana. Coastal cities are suing the federal government to do something about it. And hundreds of newspapers stand up and editorials to President Trump's constant attacks on journalists and a free press. Mark Sauer the PBS roundtable starts now. Welcome to our discussion of the week's top stories on Marks hour. And joining me at the Cape PBS roundtable today PBS reporter Jane Hindman reporter Joshua Emerson Smith of the San Diego Union Tribune PBS Environment Reporter Erica Anderson and Matt Hall editorial and opinion director for the Union Tribune. Well the in your face confrontations over the death of Earl McNeil in the custody of National City police have died down for the moment. Yet it's going on three months since McNeill's deadly encounter and his autopsy and other evidence in the case including police video remains sealed. So Jay who's the controlling authority now and what are they saying. Well right now the police have filed their report. They're finished with their investigation. It's in the hands of the district attorney now. And so their office is looking into it to see if there is any criminal wrongdoing in the case. OK and first that all remains under wraps right now and that's kind of the thing that's frustrating so many people in National City. Right. It's under wraps the investigation is sealed so even though the autopsy is finished the medical examiner's report is finished. Even though there is video there's also audio none of that is being released. And so it's been frustrating for people in National City as well as the family who is asking questions about Rusling that's on Eric Earl MacNeill's face his arms his legs. They're saying you know all of that is under investigation and they just haven't gotten a whole lot of information about it. OK. And a police citizens review board meeting last night National City that didn't ease the frustrations for people much of that. No it did not. So you know this board out there they won't actually get a glance at this internal investigation until a year from now. So it will be some time before they can look into it. They had nothing to offer in way of that. But while the community is asking for this board to be transparent and accountable. Yesterday they were trying to nail down a meeting time to have consistency. So this is a board that you know it's got six members it's supposed to have eight members. They've got a lot of things to figure out between now and when they actually start to look at this investigation. Well I know that they have a lot of video available in this case what are the chances that the family might get a look at that video at least then and the public perhaps most. What are the chances that might happen. Well you know the chances as of right now are slim and this is why because the National City is looking at this and they are trying to gird themselves and protect themselves from any litigation that may result from it. So they're not releasing any of that information. They say they just don't want it to jeopardize their investigation. Now why would that be an issue after the chief has already said that this was a clean cut situation that protocol was followed. No rules were broken here. That's the question that's on a lot of people's mind. And remind us briefly what happened in this incident shows that. So back in May Earl McNeil showed up at the police station used the phone right right outside of that front door and wanted to speak with someone. They said that he was combative and erratic. They arrested him on suspicion of having drugs under the influence. Exactly. And so they did that. They put them in a device called a wrap. And at that point though just a lot of holes in this story as to what you know they transported him to the jail how long did that that take at some point he stopped breathing his heart stopped. He was resuscitated and taken to the hospital. He died several days later. But what happened during that altercation and KPP published a timeline about this whole case here. There is some time on the town and for tell us about the whole altercation is unaccounted for. This phone call happened at 526 a.m. back in May. And we don't know how long it took officers to get out there and respond. We don't know how long Earl stayed in the wrapped device. We don't know how long it took for him to be transported to the jail where he was denied intake. After that we don't know how long it took for him to get into the ambulance into the hospital. There are a lot of unknowns in this is that it isn't it right that there's presumably body camera video out there there's surveillance video. There was outside of a police station. Exactly they're surveilled there is surveillance video of that altercation. There's also video outside of the jail the intake area there. So there's everything has been on camera. What we did learn from the family in terms of this timeline they did meet with the sheriff's office early this week. They believe that he was in that rap for at least two hours and unattended. So that's that's something that they're trying to get confirmed and the family's response on this too to what had happened was that he had he had a troubled history right. Right. Right. I mean you know he had a history of bipolar disorder. They both he may have at some time self medicated. And so all of this could could have factored in. And so that's another big question and this is why were the why was the team not called intent into this. They don't know what they would have. Those are the trained experts they're trained to deal with people who have mental illness right. Some are interacting out on the street. Sure. Sure. They've been specially trained to do this and they're supposed to be called in anytime law enforcement is going to have an interaction with someone who may be mentally ill or whom they suspect to be. In this case the family has not gotten answers concrete answers from National City Police. If in fact the team was called in. How frustrating is it some you're not quite the word questions Was the was the single word that we just talked about in this conversation. Frustrations as well you know he's got frustrations outside of National City and the family. The San Diego Union Tribune editorial board which a couple weeks ago said this is ridiculous. Get this information out there that the timeline you guys are talking about you but I want to go on Hornes too much. I will. That's an excellent piece of journalism. The digital presentation is amazing. What's most amazing is that all of the times to your point of all this digital information that's out there all these video surveillance cameras body cams KPP US has and other journalists have asked for this information and not been provided it. I mean there's too many questions for the PD and for national safety to sit on this information. They've got to kick it out. And your editorial said it's time for transparency. I mean it's been a long time it's pretty unusual to go this long run. Look there's other police departments in other cities in this state that have had shootings and other deadly situations where they have released that information. It's a balancing act you know and you got to protect a lot of different factors in these situations. But I mean come on it's time to see that video and see what it shows. A couple seconds left on this segment we talked before on the show about as I said at the open the new interface demonstrations the activists are kind of died down is it on pause for now or they are going to continue to demonstrate and raise their voices. There is not another City Council meeting right now they're on recess so they won't come back until November October or sometime around there. So and there are plans to continue to push for transparency and accountability. And by then hopefully at least we'll see some sort of report and some action from the district attorney's office on that transparency. Well we are going to move on sewage from Tijuana often fouls beaches north of the border for most of us it's an abstract idea in news stories. But for Serge the mayor of Imperial Beach the issue is personal. He explained to me at a hearing in federal court this week. The very emotional morning for me. Vivid memories of taking my kids to the emergency room. You know we have little kids here our kids are getting sick our lifeguards getting sick and sorry. Been a long road and a really tough fight and it really meant a lot to me that our members of our community were here to support that so Erica obviously very emotional in that interview this week start with what this hearing was about. The hearing was basically Judge Jeffrey Miller listening to the Justice Department make the case for having the lawsuit dismissed. Two Cities the city of Imperial Beach Chula Vista and the Port of San Diego sued the federal government saying it's time to stop this cross-border pollution problem. They sued not only the federal government the International Boundary and Water Commission but also the civilian contractor who runs the International sewage treatment plant and they said look it's time to stop this. The Federal Government is allowing this to go on and the federal government says we didn't really cause the pollution this is the case that they made in the hearing. We really didn't cause the pollution. It's not really our fault. So we shouldn't be held liable for it. And they were asking to have that suit dismissed. The judge Jeffrey Miller said he wanted to go down there and look at that he didn't need to do that for this dismissal motion. But it seemed to hint that this was going to move for a period of time. Beyond that that motion. So maybe that was an indication that he might keep this lawsuit active. So Josh what is the federal argument. I mean seems to me if you have an international border agency this is an international border problem and a big problem down there and so they say it's not on your watch. Well basically what Imperial Beach in Chula Vista and the port are asking is for the federal government to beef up the infrastructure that they have along the border that diverts the sewage as it flows across the border from Tijuana into San Diego. And they do that the federal government already does that. In the 90s they built a wastewater an international wastewater treatment plant down along the border that where a lot of the sewage is diverted to and then it gets treated and then kicked out into the ocean. They have collectors in the canyons along the border in the Tijuana River Valley and they have pumps on the Tijuana River itself. The question is are they doing enough. Because a lot of this pollution the water pollution the sewage any time it rains basically it bypasses the pumps and the collectors and flows right into San Diego. And what Imperial Beach and Chula Vista and the port are saying is you are you are the pollution hits your infrastructure and then passes it and so that is technically a discharge on behalf of the International Boundary and Water Commission which amounts to a violation of the Clean Water Act. The Federal Government says no we do our best we actually make the situation better just because it touches our our equipment and then moves on and we're not able to capture all of it. Does it mean that we necessarily should be held responsible for all of the pollution that happens. Sounds like they want to get more pumps and make Mexico pay for it. How much are we talking about here if they really wanted to do a full you know full court press on in terms of controlling this pollution in this flow. How much how many billions I imagine are we talking. Well keep it in perspective OK. This is multidecadal problem. The International wastewater treatment plant that's there now which can treat 25 million gallons or 50 million gallons of sewage a day it was put there because of the threat of legal action right. The agency that oversees that area the International Boundary and Water Commission was created as a part of NAFTA to deal specifically with pollution problems and water issues that occur near the U.S. borders. The reason that the international wastewater treatment plant there has secondary treatment now is because of the threat of legal action for a while. They were one of only two sewage plants in the country that were expelling. And you know sewage that was not treated to clean water standards that met the federal Clean Water. The point Loma plant incidentally has the other one that does that but they do it with a waiver. The International Boundary Water Commission plan never had that waiver activists threatened to sue. They did add some sewage treatment ponds to to raise the level of treatment of the water that they do treat. The issue here is is that the the Tijuana sewage system is so inadequate at this point because the population has boomed there that it's not capable of handling all the sewage that's generated there. And when you have a rain event Mexico essentially turns its collection system off because it would overwhelm their point to the plant just a little bit south of flyest Tijuana. They turn it off and then all that stuff comes into the United States. Overwhelms the collection systems which were designed as dry water systems dry water capture systems or dry weather capture systems. It just overwhelms that runs through the estuary and out into the ocean and follows the ocean water. How bad are we talking about here. Jahshan well it could be bad as we remember in February 2017 when a pipe burst in the Tijuana River. You know we had we had effluent all the way up Chula Vista. Right. So I mean it can be bad. And Imperial Beach which technically includes the Tijuana slews they have beaches shut down you know a third of the year on average. So you know you have like it and then it's not just it's not just when the beaches are shut down but it's also the perception for a place like Imperial Beach. You know you say where are we going to go to the beach this weekend you know should we go to the Silver Strand or down to Imperial Beach. And I was just we were just going down we were just having that discussion. My wife and I are having that discussion the other day and she said well let's not go to Imperial Beach because don't they have sewage down there and I was like well they thought there's that sewage every day. Right. But that perception is really bad for tourism. And it does make people sick from time to time. One out of three that's meant stunning. It's stunning and that's why you see surge to Dina choked up because of his family history. I mean kudos to him for you know we just had this discussion about a lot of listeners kind of ears are gloop it up because it's so technical it's so complex and involves so many government agencies. It is a very tough nut to crack. We've been trying to get people to pay attention to this for a long time as an editorial board as well. I know Josh has written a ton of stories KPP again doing good work and it's another example of journalism banging a drum but people aren't really paying attention. You know one thing to in the 2017 spill the stench from that spill was so bad that some people in the city of Imperial Beach felt that they couldn't leave their homes because they thought it was hurting their health. And when when the stench of sewage gets that thick I mean I think that really motivated the mayor of Imperial Beach to get out there and try to get something done that's a good point right because this is not this is not a new problem it may be getting worse as Mexico gets more and more built up as Tijuana gets more and more development. But it's not new and it surged Edina basically made a decision to go full court press on this and become super public right. Like in court in Otto they like to be very quiet about this problem right. And they don't like to talk about it occasionally get a look at the unsearched Dina basically made a decision following that 2017 spill to be very loud about this issue. And now the kind of the result of that is we're in court in federal court over this which is probably the biggest development that we've seen and I don't know how many back in the headlines. But I mean is it safe at the beaches or is it something that could be avoided altogether especially after a rain. Well Josh I would tell you this too. It's the prudent beachgoer should know whether it's safe there are a lot of resources out there where you can find out what water quality is at certain beaches. There are some tips you can have if you've been in Sandy you probably already know you go to ocean facing beach that's open that has a chance to have that water be diluted if there is contamination. If you're swimming during dry weather the odds are probably pretty low unless you're swimming near an urban runoff area. But the odds are probably pretty low that you're swimming in dirty water but common sense and using the tools available help. But you know I think the question that this situation raises that needs to be answered is Is it acceptable to have this continual pollution problem occur if this was all on this side of the border. This would have been done decades ago. Right. But somehow because the pollution originates in Mexico this problem has lingered and lingered and it's well. All right we're going to we're going to have to leave it there. Move on to the next topic we'll be watching for your stories to follow up because it'll be very interesting to see how this suit plays out. Well this was the week newspapers stood up for the first amendment. The role of a free press. The foundation of democracy and for themselves at the urging of the Boston Globe some 350 newspapers large and small published editorials defending press freedom and that includes the San Diego Union Tribune. It was a clear unified response to Donald Trump's attacks. His claim that any critical story is fake news. The press is the enemy of the people and the opposition party. True to form Trump attacked the globe via Twitter. But the United States Senate rebuked him in a unanimous vote. Senators passed a resolution saying simply The press is not the enemy of the people and Matt kind of an amazing thing in this day and age to hear these developments this week. Tell us about your decision at the Union Tribune to get involved in this book. Sure. But first how stunning is it that the U.S. Congress that the Senate has to say that have a First Amendment. No I think look I don't know your producers are very good so they probably did this consciously but we just talked about Earl McNeil. We just talked about this issue with sewage. Journalists are keeping those stories alive and keeping people talking. And that is what that's where the rubber hits the road. That's one of the reasons why we decided to tee up this editorial knowing full well that there was going to be some perils some pitfalls because the administration was going to say collusion. You know the administration was going to say here we go with 350 newspaper editorial boards around the country deciding to write similar editorials on the same day. Now knowing full well that that was going to be the criticism that we were running into had on I decided to address it in the editorial and say look these are individual people and individual outlets choosing their individual words and every editorial board needed to decide who their audience was. I think this is an important point. You know audience could have been one person it could have been the president could have been others. We decided that audience actually me that our audience was the three million residents of San Diego who are readers or potential readers and anyone interested in San Diego who might look at the Union Tribune and these other newspapers and say this is an important day. I've got a ton of feedback. Some people saying things that I won't repeat here on the air. You know some people offering thoughtful criticism. The overwhelming majority response that I've received has been positive. Some e-mails that just say two words thank you. The L.A. Times got some feedback. I was reading letters column today because they are among several notable papers decided not to do this and they were taken to task for some redress for not doing a robust discussion in your editorial room right. Yeah it was. This wasn't just we didn't just get this e-mail from Marjorie Pritchett at the globe. I got it on Wednesday morning last night. We're all and we're going to do this. We had discussions over several days. I stayed late in the office on Monday and Tuesday to write this thing and then we talked about it on the following day and then we published it. So eventually we decided that it was worth doing is the right message at the right time. But you mentioned Nicole Berg at the L.A. Times. John Diaz at the San Francisco Chronicle did not do editorials. They had columns pretty insightful pretty thoughtful columns defending their decision not to exhibit a why this was not an organized effort. It was done independently. Well I wanted to bring up Thomas Jefferson famously said 1787 he'd prefer newspapers without a government than a government without newspapers only to later say once he was president nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Presidents have always tangled with the press. What's different about Trump. That's a good question. That's one of the criticisms we get that this has been done dating back to the first president's done very loudly in the Nixon administration. This is different because of the frequency because of the level of his criticism because Quinnipiac University poll last week showed that 44 percent of the people respond to that poll believe that journalists are a greater risk of violence because of this rhetoric. You know what I'm gonna leave aside what happened in Annapolis because that is not a part of this conversation. Journalist showing that of course was the shooting five journalists dead in the NEWSROOM. Yeah correct. Journalist show up everyday to do their work. It's poignant for us here on the border in Mexico journalists get killed for doing their work. But we just our intentions are good and so what we decided to do at the tribunal say here's why that is here's how we restore trust in journalism and faith in journalism. There was interesting I want to make a point that was your headline there how we restore faith in journalism. I mean that implies that the president has done some damage with these kinds of attacks on the president. Let's not give him too much credit. I mean this has been going on for decades. Kind of the systemic political attacks against the press. Let's be honest journalists have not done selves some favors. There have been some big mistakes some big mistakes that weren't acknowledged that weren't corrected. So we own this problem ourselves. We've got to dig out of it but we've got to start doing a better job of that. And I think transparency is another word for trust. And so at the Union Tribune and other outlets we are more proactive explaining to people how we do our jobs right. I mean I don't know the kind of responses you got. Newsweek chose you as I'm listening to you talk have been thinking about that. Like do I feel like more people are approaching me or emailing me skeptical about the work we do and I don't know if that's the case. To be honest like I feel like our readers sometimes they can totally be very opinionated and maybe even feel like the the what we said wasn't accurate. But I just I. Have a hard time really wrapping my head around whether people like trust us less. I can't say I have like an overwhelming feeling about this. You know I mean you definitely hear the talking points of like the fake news being thrown about at dinner table conversations all that's fake or whatever. I don't know how deep it really runs. I do. I do think about that quite well. There's a poll that kind of goes to that Donald Trump has made a mockery of the adage Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel. We've all heard that over the years. Ipsos poll this month 43 percent of Republicans agree that Trump should have the power to shut down news organizations that exhibit quote bad behavior. Well it's not just Republicans. I think most of the Republicans are supportive of this president across the board are by and large. But now you increasingly do see polls show the opposite of what Joshua is talking about where independents to a lesser extent and Democrats to an even lesser extent but still significant for distrust the media for one reason or another I think it speaks highly of you and your reporting that you're not getting go back but I do think to that point I think look this is about individual journalists having an interaction with the public. I'm sure you guys have the same situation. Good part of it is about media literacy too. What I you know I recently came back from a convention with the National Association of Black Journalists. This was a huge topic there. And so in talking to journalists from all across the country they're finding that a lot of readers a lot of viewers sometimes don't know the difference between an opinion piece in a news piece between a pundit and a reporter or an anchor. And so transparency and media literacy I think can help clear some of this. Yeah and to that point this week the union tribune launched a new page on our website that defines all of these terms. I think too often we assumed all right people knew what it was or didn't care even that they didn't know. We're not we got to do better. And so we have this page up that says here's how we handle anonymous sources or don't to my preference I think the news industry uses them too much how we edit photos and videos how we decide what is newsworthy. You know and so I think this is an important thing to your point. Transparency is super important. All right well we are just about out of time. It's a great discussion. I hope folks turn to that page you've got and in turn all the websites and read newspapers and listen to TV and radio. Certainly we all have an interest in that. Well that does wrap up another week of stories at the PBS roundtable. I like to thank my guests Jane Heidemann of KP CBS News Joshua Emerson Smith of the San Diego Union Tribune. Eric Anderson of PBS and Matt Hall of the Union Tribune. And a reminder all the stories we discuss today are available on our Web site. PBS dot org. I'm Mark soure and thanks for joining us today on the roundtable.

Waiting For Answers

Earl McNeil, 40, died a few weeks after an encounter with National City police in May. That much we know. But, officials haven't released information that could shed light on what exactly happened to him. No body camera footage, security camera footage or autopsy report has been released.

Officers say they've wrapped up their investigation, and it's now in the hands of the District Attorney's office. But, activists and McNeil's family continue to press officials for answers.

RELATED: Community Organizers Call For More Accountability In National City Police Oversight

Cross-Border Sewage Problem

Earlier this week, lawyers for the federal government tried to get out of a lawsuit holding them responsible for a cross-border pollution problem that's been fouling beaches in San Diego's South Bay.

Imperial Beach Mayor Serge Dedina gave an emotional statement about the effects of the problem. He said people, including his own children, and lifeguards are getting sick, emergency room sick. A judge will decide who is responsible for paying for what could be a costly solution.

RELATED: Feds Seek Dismissal Of San Diego Cross-Border Sewage Lawsuit

Freedom Of The Press

Newspapers all over the country struck back this week at President Trump, who has repeatedly called the press the "enemy of the people" and "fake news." More than 300 newspapers ran editorials about the importance of our free press Thursday.

The effort was led by the Boston Globe and the San Diego Union-Tribune published its version with the headline: How we restore faith in journalism.