The local American Civil Liberties Union and 26 other groups sent a letter Wednesday to the Department of Justice calling for an investigation into the San Diego Police Department‘s use of force when encountering people with mental illness.

A protestor with a mask calls for more police evaluations.
A protestor with a mask calls for more police evaluations. Photo by Chris Stone

Updated at 5:24 p.m. Feb. 17, 2016:

The American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and more than two dozen other local organizations called Wednesday on the Department of Justice to investigate the San Diego Police Department’s use of force when encountering people with mental illness in volatile situations.

The ACLU, in a letter to the DOJ, compiled a list of what it called “disturbing incidents that suggest the San Diego Police Department’s pattern and practice of improperly handling incidents with people with mental illness or who are experiencing a mental health crisis.”

Such 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,” he said.

Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman responded to the criticism by pointing to recent upswings in the frequency of her personnel’s dealings with the mentally ill and noting that law enforcement cannot solve the difficult social problem on its own.

“San Diego police officers responded to over 18,000 mental health calls for service last year alone,” she said. “This is a 100 percent 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.”

The chief said her department’s personnel “welcome the opportunity to work together to assist those who are suffering from mental illness.”

“No police officer comes to work wanting to be involved in a shooting,” she said. “Our training strategy focuses on de-escalating situations and deploying the appropriate resources to safely resolve an unstable situation.”

The ACLU-led action comes three months after District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis declined to press charges against San Diego police Officer Neal Browder, who shot and killed a psychologically disturbed Afghanistan native in a dark alley behind a Midway-area sex shop last spring.

Fridoon Nehad, 42, reportedly had been threatening people in the area and allegedly advanced on Browder in a menacing manner. The officer, who had been informed that Nehad had a knife, opened fire as the suspect walked toward him. As it turned out, Nehad was holding a pen.

The request for an outside review of the SDPD seeks answers to various questions, including: why the police initiated or escalated the confrontations in question; why officers perceived a threat from certain individuals; whether officers are properly trained in de-escalation tactics; whether 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.

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.

Other cases cited by the signatories of the letter include the officer- involved shootings of:

— Philip McMahon, 27, who allegedly charged police in the nude and tried to take away an officer’s gun after breaking a neighbor’s window in Mira Mesa on Feb. 16, 2015;

— Ja Ma Lo Day, 21, a Burmese refugee who reportedly threatened to kill family members at their City Heights home and then attacked a police dog with a machete on July 13, 2014;

— Nathan Manning, 31, who allegedly attacked a detective who was trying to break up a fight between Manning and his roommate at a Normal Heights intersection on May 20, 2010; and

— Bradford Sarten, 55, who allegedly advanced on officers with a kitchen knife after assaulting his 85-year-old mother at their North Park home on April 26, 2010.

All the suspects except McMahon died of their gunshot wounds.

Along with Norma Chavez-Peterson, executive director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, representatives of the following agencies signed on to the letter to the Justice Department:

— A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment & Healing);

— Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment San Diego;

— Alliance San Diego;

— American Federation of Teachers, Local 1931;

— American Friends Service Committee;

— Amity Foundation;

— Center on Policy Initiatives;

— Council on American-Islamic Relations, San Diego;

— Employee Rights Center;

— Iredale and Yoo, APC;

— Jewish Family Service of San Diego;

— Law Offices of Joseph M. McMullen;

— Law Office of Thomas E. Robertson;

— NAACP San Diego;

— National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum;

— Partners for Progress San Diego;

— Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans;

— Pillars of the Community;

— San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council;

— San Diego Area Black Health Associates;

— San Diego Area Congregations for Change;

— San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association;

— SEIU Local 221;

— Singleton Law Firm, APC;

— Interfaith Center for Worker Justice; and

— Urban League of San Diego County.

— City News Service