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What We Learned This Week — Voice of San Diego

San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit speaks at a press conference announcing the department’s decision to stop using the carotid restraint method. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

In the absence of meaningful details about the victims of the horrific Atlanta shooting this week, police voices filled the vacuum.

It didn’t go well.

A police official responding to questions about the shootings seemed to sympathize with the alleged shooter, and to suggest that the suspect’s own denial that the crime was racially motivated meant that it wasn’t.

That the White police officer’s characterization of that interview dominated the news for several days highlights the continued failings of both police and the media in response to terrible crimes.

“The rush to identify one true motive prevents us from understanding the complexities of a crime like this — and ultimately does a disservice to the victims themselves,” New York magazine wrote.

The Washington Post noted last year that initial police accounts of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the severe injury of Martin Gugino, either omitted crucial facts or were straight-up lies: “In their initial public statements about George Floyd’s death, for example, Minneapolis police didn’t mention that one of its officers knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes; it noted only that Floyd ‘appeared to be suffering medical distress.’ Louisville police listed Breonna Taylor’s injuries as ‘none’ after shooting her eight times in her home during a March police raid that began with a no-knock warrant. And Buffalo police initially said Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old protester who was shoved to the ground and severely injured by officers, merely ‘tripped and fell.’”

Let’s look at how this has played out in San Diego.

As recently as this month, San Diego Police had to backtrack and admit that a homeless man shot by police had not, in fact, threatened with a knife the officer who shot him. Rather, he pulled a knife from his pocket after being explicitly directed to do so by the officer, and dropped it on the ground.

The initial stories about the incident provide the police’s version of events, and no information suggesting it’s up for dispute. Body camera footage showed it wasn’t true.

And then there’s the police shooting of an unarmed man that we’ve covered since 2015. Here’s how it was initially reported by the Times of San Diego, relying entirely on the police narrative:

“An employee of the Highlight Book Store called for help after the armed man threatened people in the 3200 block of Hancock Street near West Camino del Rio around 12:05 a.m., San Diego Police Lt. Mike Hastings said. … An arriving officer spotted the suspect behind the building. The knife- wielding man charged at the officer prompting him to open fire, according to Hastings.”

Some of the glaring problems with this account include that the victim was not wielding a knife and did not charge at the officer. He was unarmed. The officer didn’t identify himself as police, and the victim was arguably backpedaling – the opposite of charging – when he was killed.

The facts, provided by security footage that captured the incident because the officer did not turn on his body camera, took months to come to light because SDPD and the city of San Diego fought vigorously to conceal them from the public.

Media outlets across San Diego recently trumpeted crime stats for the region, and included context from SDPD to explain the new numbers. I didn’t see anyone challenge the explanations or narratives offered by police, like this one: “Police Department data show the rate of closed — or ‘cleared’ — homicide cases jumped from 66 percent in 2019 to 87 percent last year,” the U-T reported. Yet “cleared” often means police have simply moved on from a case – not that they’ve actually solved it. Has the department actually solved more cases? I don’t know – and it doesn’t look like anyone has tried to find out.

Over and over, the media has failed to learn not to trumpet police narratives uncritically. And virtually every time it happens, it comes at the expense of our non-White and most vulnerable neighbors.

What VOSD Learned This Week

The amount of coronavirus aid money pouring into local schools is truly unfathomable. Sweetwater Union High School District is likely not alone in spending a big chunk of its special funds to pay teachers – something it has to do, pandemic or not.

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Lisa Halverstadt put the horrific crash this week that killed several homeless residents into a broader policy context about what Mayor Todd Gloria is grappling with. We also discussed that dilemma on this week’s podcast.

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MacKenzie Elmer examined the many hurdles facing the effort to build a tunnel further inland in Del Mar to support rail tracks that hopefully won’t crumble into the sea. Del Mar’s crumbling bluffs were just one example cited by a Senate committee that passed Sen. Toni Atkins’ bill to address sea-level rise this week.

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There are hundreds of so-called crime-free apartment complexes across San Diego County. Officials champion the programs as a way to hold landlords accountable. Advocates argue they make it harder for people of color to find apartments and stay in them.

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Decades ago, residents with Middle Eastern and North African roots wanted to be counted as “White” in the census to avoid stigma. Now, that classification means communities are undercounted and don’t get the resources they need.

What I’m Reading

Line of the Week

“The first thing John Foley, Peloton’s C.E.O., does when he wakes up in the morning is drink water from his hands ‘until I feel like I’m going to throw up,’ and my rational brain is skeptical of this person.” – This is your brain on Peloton.