SAN DIEGO (CN) - A federal judge on Tuesday heard arguments on media outlets' request to unseal surveillance camera footage of the shooting death of an unarmed, mentally ill man by a San Diego police officer.
U.S. District Judge William Hayes, of the Southern District of California, heard arguments presented by media outlets Voice of San Diego, KPBS, The Union Tribune, Inewsource and KGTV Channel 10 News as to why there was not good cause to video taken by a security camera in a public alley in Point Loma sealed.
Attorney Guylyn Cummins, representing the outlets, said the media wants the tape unsealed so the family of slain 42-year-old Fridoon Rawshan Nehad could share their copy of the video publicly.
Officer Neal Browder, a 27-year veteran of the San Diego Police Department, shot and killed Nehad on April 30 while responding to a call of a man threatening people with a knife. Police later confirmed Nehad was unarmed and was holding a metallic pen at the time of the shooting.
Browder was wearing a body camera at the time of the shooting but failed to turn it on before making contact with Nehad, prompting the department to change its policy so officers are required to activate their cameras "prior to their arrival on radio calls that are likely to result in an enforcement contact."
Chief Shelly Zimmerman has said repeatedly she would not make public footage captured from body cameras except in the case of a "riot-type situation" where public safety is a risk.
The media outlets originally sought access to the footage through a public records request that was denied by the department, which cited an exemption in the state's Public Records Act for denying access to records used in an ongoing investigation.
"The public has a clear interest in investigating officer-involved shootings and the media have oversight duties," Cummins said. "People on both sides of the camera can see what is really occurring and just how important to democracy these pieces of evidence are."
The outlets claim the police department and city hunkered down so the public would not see the video, and the business that has a copy of the video is afraid to share it with the public without a court order.
Nehad's family is willing to share the footage with the media and they believe the footage should be public, but are unable to release the their copy due to the order. The family said they were required to enter into the order before being allowed to view and get a copy of the video.
The arguments presented by the defendants in the case - the city of San Diego and Browder - led to lengthy back-and-forth questioning by Hayes, who said establishing good cause to maintain the order is a difficult standard to meet and cited other judges who have said the standard cannot be met.
The defendants argued that removing the order could prejudice potential jurors and witnesses, taint an ongoing internal investigation by the department - which the defendants said is nearly "wrapped up" - and put officers at risk for assault by riling up the public and creating what the defendants called "noise" from media coverage of the case.
San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said last month she would not file criminal charges against Browder, finding the shooting was reasonable based on what unfolded that night. Dumanis also released a 15-page letter to Zimmerman outlining the evidence used in the DA investigation.
Browder and the city asked Hayes to hold off releasing the footage until February 2016 if he decides to lift the order, claiming they need time to consult with the city council which will be on recess in January.
Hayes denied that request, and said he would issue a written decision on the case by the end of the week.
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