SAN DIEGO (CN) - Following national outrage and investigations of use of force by police across the nation, the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties asked the Justice Department Wednesday to investigate San Diego police.
The ACLU along with 26 civil rights, social service organizations and law firms called on the federal government to investigate use of force incidents by officers of the San Diego Police Department when encountering people with mental illness.
The call comes in the wake of the shooting death of Fridoon Nehad, killed this past April by 27-year SDPD veteran Neal Browder. Browder responded to a call of a man threatening people with a knife and shot Nehad, who was armed only with a metallic pen.
Browder did not activate his sirens or flashing police lights when he drove up to Nehad and shot him within two to three seconds of exiting his police cruiser. He also failed to turn on his body-worn camera before making contact with Nehad.
San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis declined to file criminal charges against Browder and only publicly released edited surveillance footage of the shooting after several San Diego media outlets took the police department to court.
Nehad's sister Benny Roshan said her family is "heartened" by the ACLU's call for an investigation.
"Too many families like ours have had loved ones violently wrenched from them. 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," Roshan said in an online statement.
The letter addressed to U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy and Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta lists several incidents where lethal force was used by SDPD officers, including the shooting death of Nehad.
The ACLU compiled a list of "disturbing incidents" that the groups claim "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."
In a statement posted to the ACLU website, San Diego ACLU legal director David Loy said, "These deadly 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."
He added, "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."
The letter also points out a shooting incident on Feb. 16, 2015, when 27-year-old Philip McMahon was shot in the collarbone by a responding officer whose Taser was ineffective. McMahon survived the shooting despite having his jugular vein torn apart by the bullet.
The ACLU also cited the 2014 shooting death of 21-year-old Burmese refugee Ja Ma Lo Day, who struggled with mental illness and threatened to kill his family members. When police arrived on the scene, they did not use a translator to communicate with Day, who understood little English, and instead broke down the door and deployed a police dog.
Day injured the dog with a machete two officers opened fire, killing him.
In 2010, Nathan Manning - who had a long history of mental illness and had stopped taking his medication - was killed by San Diego Police Detective Edward Jones. According to the ACLU, there is serious discrepancy between the events leading up to Manning's death as portrayed by the SDPD and District Attorney's Office and what Manning's family said happened.
Also in 2010, Bradford Sarten was killed when police officers responded to his family's home to evaluate his mental health. Sarten came out of the kitchen holding a knife and "advanced toward" officers, who shot him. He later died at the hospital.
In several of the incidents, SDPD officers used lethal force within minutes of arriving on the scene, according to the ACLU.
The San Diego District Attorney's Office recently commissioned a study that found of the 367 suspects shot by law enforcement officers in the county between 1993 and 2012, 123 had a documented mental health illness and were "exhibiting unstable behavior." Of those who were shot, the DA determined that at least 67 incidents, or 19 percent, involved "suicide by cop," meaning the person wanted the police to shoot them.
But the ACLU says this phrase is problematic because it "attaches all agency and responsibility to the targets of police violence" and provides "unwarranted justification" for Dumanis' reluctance to prosecute officers who employ lethal force.
The group says the use of force by the SDPD may violate the Violent Crime and Control and Law Enforcement Act as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Civil Rights Division has launched similar investigations in Seattle, Cleveland and San Francisco, according to the ACLU.
The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment.
San Diego officials did not respond to email requests for comment.
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