National City Police
A National City Police cruiser. Image from city website

Updated at 7:16 p.m. June 7, 2018

A mentally ill man went to a South Bay police station seeking help last month but instead wound up in a coma, having suffered severe brain damage while in custody, relatives said Thursday, hours before he was scheduled to be taken off life support.

Earl McNeil, who is in his 40s and has bipolar disorder and possibly other mental health issues, has been hospitalized in critical condition since shortly after he sought help from the National City Police Department two weeks ago, according to Tasha Williamson, a leader of an advocacy group demanding answers about what happened to him.

According to McNeil’s relatives, he went to NCPD headquarters at 1200 National City Blvd. to ask for assistance of some kind, was taken to San Diego Central Jail and then wound up at UCSD Medical Center in Hillcrest with a grim prognosis. Exactly what transpired during that timeline is a mystery, they say.

Police officials, for their part, contend that McNeil was combative, agitated and paranoid that day, forcing them to put him into full-body restraints while transporting him to county jail, where he was stricken by a medical crisis.

While in custody, McNeil suffered “irreparable brain (and) nerve damage,” said Williamson, an activist with Building Justice, an organization contacted by the family to help seek answers about the case.

“He’s got bruising all over his face and head, and severe brain and nerve trauma,” she said. “It’s shocking. What happened?”

McNeil’s injuries are so extensive that his loved ones have accepted that he is beyond recovery.

“His family, at the request of doctors, made the decision to stop all lifesaving measures (Thursday) evening,” Williamson said.

The grieving family has received few answers about how he wound up in that state, according to Williamson.

In a statement released late Thursday afternoon, the National City Police Department put forth its official narrative of the events surrounding the arrest.

Shortly before 5:30 a.m. May 26, McNeil called the NCPD emergency- communications center from a telephone near the entrance to the police station, according to the department.

“During his conversation with the dispatcher, McNeil requested to speak with an officer and made paranoid, threatening and irrational statements,” according to the agency. “When officers arrived to speak with McNeil, he was very agitated (and) paranoid and said he was in possession of a controlled substance.”

In order to “de-escalate the situation,” officers handcuffed McNeil, the memo states. At that point, he allegedly became combative and began spitting at the personnel, prompting them to put him in maximum restraints and take him to San Diego Central Jail.

“During the intake process with county jail staff, McNeil exhibited signs of medical distress, and NCPD officers called for paramedics,” according to police. “Paramedics responded and treated McNeil at the jail. McNeil was transported by paramedics to UCSD Medical Center for additional treatment.”

NCPD Sgt. Chris Sullivan, a department spokesman, said the only force officers used on McNeil involved getting him to the ground to put him in restraints while still at police headquarters.

During the ride to jail, the suspect banged his own head against a plastic window between the prisoner section and the front seat of the patrol vehicle he was in, Sullivan said. The sergeant said he did not know how many self-inflicted blows McNeil might have suffered during that purported outburst.

Sullivan said NCPD officials have received no follow-up reports on McNeil’s condition following his admission to the trauma center. The spokesman said he could not account for how the suspect could have suffered the type of injuries described by his family.

Scott LaFee, a spokesman for UCSD Health, said Thursday morning he had no information about McNeil’s condition.

The family has filed a complaint alleging civil rights violations in the case with the FBI, Williamson said.

Thursday afternoon, the San Diego field office of the federal agency stated that its agents were “aware of the incident in National City … and are in regular contact with local authorities.”

“If in the course of the local investigation, information comes to light of a potential federal civil rights violation, the FBI is prepared to investigate,” the federal agency asserted.

Meanwhile, McNeil’s relatives are preparing for his loss. The family — including an aunt who raised him after his mother died when he was 12, and a cousin who “is like a sibling” — is devastated, Williamson said.

–City News Service