Terrible Year, Great Discoveries: Our Favorite Stories of 2020

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Terrible Year, Great Discoveries: Our Favorite Stories of 2020

These were our favorite stories from this crazy, devastating, unprecedented and very newsy year.

A photo collage of our favorite stories
Photos by Adriana Heldiz

The pandemic dominated our lives in 2020, and much of Voice of San Diego’s news coverage reflected the ongoing story that upended everything: We explored how the coronavirus is spreading in the air, in local detention facilities, in the farmworker community, and in an assisted-living facility.

The year also brought a reckoning about inequality and abuses of power. We uncovered plenty on that front too. We revealed how law enforcement targeted people for daring to talk back, monitored protesters from streetlights, harassed transit riders, and fought transparency. Our stories got results. We also managed to highlight the good that’s around us, like an elementary school’s secret to success, and we sparked a drive for a local statue to honor a woman for a change.

You’ll find links to all these stories and more below in a compilation of the VOSD news crew’s favorite stories from 2020.

The Real Story on How Covid Spreads – at Last

Scott Lewis, CEO/editor in chief

The Story: Stop it With the Plexiglass – How to Open Schools (and Other Places)  

What It’s About: I explained how the SARS-Cov-2 virus spreads with help from scientists who were able, maybe a bit too late, to change the consensus worldwide about the threat. In short, it spreads through the air, and if we been able to understand that earlier, much of the early guidance could have focused more on ventilation and outdoor work rather than plexiglass and the sterilization of surfaces.

Why the Writer Liked It: Once you begin to understand aerosols, you are immediately confronted with how much of them you share with others. It’s hard not to look at someone now and picture how much of a cloud is spewed around them that you are going to be taking in, especially indoors. For example, if educators want to minimize the spread of the virus, they should start by imagining one of the children smoking a cigarette. What would you do to minimize the smell and the distraction for others? You’d ventilate or go outside. You’d put a mask on the little degenerate to keep him from spewing it all too far.

What’s Happening Now: I was contacted by a class at La Jolla Country Day School, where they built kits to measure carbon dioxide in the classroom. CO2 can serve as a proxy for ventilation. Outdoors has about 420 ppm C02. So if you can keep your inside room not much above that, you have good ventilation. If it spikes, yikes. San Diego Unified School District also focused on ventilation and this kind of measurement. Unfortunately, it never never opened in-person education at any scale. When it does, it will be safer and maybe it will help with other dangerous (or smelly) aerosols. 

Inside SDPD’s Assault on Transparency

Sara Libby, managing editor

The Story: Police Review Board Was Denied Docs, Interviews in 2015 Shooting Review

What It’s About: Back in 2015, VOSD led a legal effort to unseal security camera footage of a San Diego police officer’s shooting and killing of an unarmed man within seconds of encountering him. It was a big win for transparency, but thousands of pages of documents detailing SDPD practices and policies remained under seal. We and others, including the ACLU, worked for years to ensure those documents saw the light of day too.

This year, they finally did. Thanks to a landmark police transparency law, the city agreed to unseal the documents at issue. We obtained the documents and took a look.

Why the Writer Liked It: The story revealed the extent to which the existing police review board was thwarted in its attempt to investigate this case. They weren’t allowed to interview the officer involved and couldn’t get certain documents they sought.

What’s Happening Now: Since these records were released, city voters passed Measure B, which will overhaul the independent watchdog group that investigates complaints against SDPD officers and use of force. The measure gives the committee the power to subpoena witnesses and documents, which it could not do in this case.

The civil lawsuit filed by the family of Fridoon Nehad, the man shot by the SDPD officer, is set to go to trial in federal court soon.

You Can’t Talk About Racism Without Talking About Single-Family Zoning

Andrew Keatts, assistant editor

The Story: Single-Family Zoning’s Century of Supremacy in San Diego

What It’s About: The story of housing in San Diego for the last century has been the legally imposed supremacy of single-family homes over all others. It has played a key role in segregating the city, and that’s no coincidence: Our historical look at the genesis of single-family zoning showed it grew directly out of a decision outlawing explicit racial exclusion. As the city has made it legal to build other types of homes to address affordability and climate concerns, the supremacy of single-family zoning persists, even within the city’s boldest reforms.

Why the Writer Liked it: San Diego began reckoning with the policies that have contributed to the systemic racism we live with today. We cannot have that conversation without grappling with our historical and current commitment to exclusionary zoning.

What’s Happening Now: Mayor Kevin Faulconer passed the last of his major housing reform proposals in his final weeks in office, a proposal that specifically exempted single-family zones from its attempts to make way for more affordable housing. The Democrat-controlled City Council supported it.

Their Eyes Are Up Here: How Streetlights Watched Protesters

Jesse Marx, associate editor

The Story: Police Used Smart Streetlight Footage to Investigate Protesters

What It’s About: Over a five-day period in May and June, San Diego Police tapped into a network of streetlight cameras at least 35 times in search of evidence linking Black Lives Matter protesters to potential crimes. The devices had been installed years earlier as part of an energy-saving program that officials said could count cars and measure air quality in addition to dimming lights. The project evolved into a tool for law enforcement.

Why the Writer Liked It: This story got a strong reaction and was part of an ongoing series about the failures of governments to properly account for the surveillance technology they roll out. Had the public known the devices would be used against demonstrators in 2020, I doubt officials would have been so quick to approve the $30 million project in 2016.

What’s Happening Now: In November, the City Council gave initial approval to a new ordinance establishing stronger rules for the future use and acquisition of devices capable of watching or listening to the public. Officials also signed off on a privacy advisory board consisting of technologists and community members who can make recommendations. Both proposals are expected to come back before the City Council early next year.

A Beach Too Far: The Gap Between the Poor and the Ocean

MacKenzie Elmer, staff writer

The Story: Reopened Beaches Remain Out of Reach for San Diego’s Poor 

What Is It About: While everyone was whining about the beaches being closed due to the pandemic, it occurred to me that there was a large swath of the population that has to surpass tremendous hurdles just to get there in the first place — pandemic or not.

Why the Writer Liked It: Since I’m new to town, the story introduced me to San Diego’s unsavory history (like most U.S. cities) of redlining, the foundational reason for the location-based racial inequities that persist today. More people of color and disadvantaged populations live farther east, away from the desirable and cooler coastline, due to this policy. Climate change will only exacerbate the physical living conditions for those unfairly pushed into hotter inland areas in the future. 

What’s Happening Now: SANDAG, the regional planning agency, is supposed to announce its much-awaited regional plan next fall, which is supposed to address the transit inequities laid out in the story. We’ll see if they prioritize beach access. 

Exposed: The Transit System’s Abuses of Riders

Lisa Halverstadt, staff writer

The Story: Series of articles on Metropolitan Transit System enforcement and policies

What It’s About: After years of hearing anecdotes about MTS, I found that the agency ticketed fare evaders far more than other transit systems. Then former intern Bella Ross and I found that the vast majority of tickets went unpaid and unaddressed, yet their existence could later terrorize low-income people who received them. Next, another intern, Kate Nucci, and I found that Black riders were being cited disproportionately.

Finally, I discovered that MTS is required to provide discounted fares for certain disabled riders, but even seasoned doctors and service providers found the process to get discounts burdensome and confusing – and MTS rejected lots of applications.

Why the Writer Liked It: The stories seemed to make a difference. The day after my story about how MTS tickets can terrorize low-income riders, the board voted unanimously on a bolstered plan to reduce the burden of fare evasion tickets and ensure riders get a chance to pay before being ticketed. Then, a month later, MTS announced that the security chief who was the architect of its enforcement approach would be retiring. And as I finished my story on disabled riders’ struggles to access discounted fares, MTS said it would make reforms to address concerns.

What’s Happening Now: MTS hired an outside consultant to review its enforcement practices and policies and appointed a committee that includes academics and activists to help advise the reviewers. A final report is expected to be delivered to MTS by the end of the year. That report, plus the coming expiration of the agency’s security agreement with contractor Allied Universal and national police reform debates, promise more discussions in 2021. 

Uncovered: How a Poor Elementary School Manages to Succeed

Will Huntsberry, staff writer

The Story: One City Heights School Is Doing Nearly the Impossible: Closing the Achievement Gap

What It’s About: A big question in education is: “How do we close the achievement gap?” I wanted to explore this question, so I used a scatter plot – a graph that reveals outliers – to examine school poverty levels and test scores. I found one school that has extremely high poverty levels but somehow is beating the odds when it comes to test scores. Next, I spent a ton of time at the school trying to laser in on exactly how they do it.

Why the Writer Liked It: I think I answered the question of how Edison Elementary succeeds. Everyone on the team shares the same mission: They strive to be “warm demanders.” The formula is weirdly amorphous and totally makes sense. The teachers and the counselors, really everyone at the school, bring a sense of kindness and love to the children. They don’t overlook social and emotional needs. But they also demand the very best of each student.

What’s Happening Now: The principal Eileen Moreno has moved on to a different school in San Diego Unified – Cabrillo Elementary. Edison has been on the right track for a long time, even before Moreno became principal, so she wanted to take on a new assignment to try to take the lessons of Edison to another school.

At a North County High School, a Legacy of Abuse

Kayla Jimenez, Staff Writer

The Story: Inside a Decade’s Worth of Harassment and Abuse Complaints at Westview High

What It’s About: This story uncovered a sexual harassment and abuse complaints against Westview High School employees over the last decade. Several of the staffers involved faced few if any consequences despite being accused of or found to have engaged in boundary-crossing interactions with current or former students.

Why the Writer Liked It: The incidents illuminated the lengths that officials at the school have gone to keep numerous teachers accused of misconduct employed.

What’s Happening Now: Prior to this story, the Poway Unified School District updated its employee use of technology policy to specify that district employees, including teachers and administrators, should refrain from communicating with students through technology for personal reasons outside of the classroom.

Protests Spawn Arrests — But Not Actual Charges

The Story: No Unlawful Assembly Charges So Far Following Dozens of Arrests

What It’s About: Most of the 120 protesters arrested by SDPD in the span of three days last summer were cited not for violence or theft, but for violating unlawful assembly orders. VOSD intern Brittany Cruz-Fejeran and I dug into the cases to see if the arrests were as abnormal as they seemed, compared to historical norms. They were.

Why the Writer Liked It: The look back at recent history gave new perspective on this year’s violent police-protester encounters. Those new insights could also help inform discussions about the role of police in the community as talks of defunding or reimagining the police continue in San Diego.

What’s Happening Now: The combined effect of court closures during the coronavirus pandemic and reluctance among local prosecutors to charge peaceful protesters may mean those arrested by SDPD for unlawful assembly alone this year never get charged. More serious protest-related charges against far fewer people – for looting, assault or vandalism – are proceeding slowly through the courts.

Carelessness Let Pandemic Run Wild at Federal Jail

Maya Srikrishnan, staff writer

The Story: Docs, Witnesses Say Lax Procedures Fueled Virus Spread in Federal Jail

What It’s About: Early on, public health experts warned that without proper precautions, the pandemic could devastate prisons, jails and detention facilities. Yet we’ve watched it take hold in them throughout the country. This story dug into how COVID-19 spread through the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a federal U.S. Marshals Service detention center in downtown San Diego. Using documents, interviews with people detained in the facility, and interviews with attorneys and family members of people who were sick, I was able to piece together several concrete ways the facility hadn’t followed protocols and best practices in trying to prevent the virus from entering and spreading throughout the facility.

Why the Writer Liked It: Transparency about COVID-19 in these issues has been a huge problem, and it’s often been difficult to figure out what’s going on inside of them, even as people are dying. I’m grateful that I was able to shed even a little bit of light on how careless authorities were with the lives of people in their custody.

What’s Happening Now: That outbreak at MCC seems to have subsided, but since then another U.S. Marshals facility in San Diego had an outbreak. Donovan State Prison and some of the San Diego Sheriff’s Department facilities are experiencing outbreaks this month.

For Farmworkers, the Pandemic Is Yet Another Blow

Adriana Heldiz, multimedia producer

The Story: Farmworkers Confront Losses, Anxiety Despite Demand for Food

What It’s About: When the pandemic started back in March, I wanted to document how farmworkers who often work without any health or employment benefits were dealing with the new reality of working and living. So I contacted a local advocate, and he introduced me to folks in North County for this photo essay.

Many farmworkers were hesitant to talk to me, let alone let me follow them around with a camera, because of their immigration status. Slowly but surely, things started to come together, and I learned that the pandemic wasn’t just affecting farmworkers. It was also affecting farm owners and local distributors of fresh food.

Why the Writer Liked It: The photo essay revealed how the pandemic created a domino effect within the agricultural industry.

What’s Happening Now: Because farmworkers are considered essential workers, advocates across the state are asking that they become a priority for the coronavirus vaccine. Several farmer’s markets across the county are still operating under strict COVID regulations, and local restaurants are juggling the constantly changing rules set by local and state officials. A couple months after my story published, I drove up to visit farmworkers with VOSD’s Maya Srikrishnan for a different story about an apparent increase in immigration checkpoints in the area.

How S.D. Cops Ticketed Back-Talkers for ‘Sedition’

Kate Nucci, former intern

The Story: Those Ticketed for Seditious Language Say Their Only Crime Was Talking Back

What It’s About: My first assignment of my VOSD internship was to search through a 2020 dataset of SDPD arrests and tickets for any interesting trends. I was manually categorizing batches of the violations when “seditious language” showed up out of the blue. 

AP U.S. History was one of my favorite classes in high school. I think my first thought was, wait, like the Alien and Sedition Act? That’s not allowed. But the SDPD was indeed ticketing people for “seditious language” under a city ordinance from 1918. Eighty-three people definitely got this ticket in recent years, and a lot more probably did. At least 54 police officers cited people.

Why the Writer Liked It: This story revealed how police officers were using an obviously unconstitutional 100-year-old city law to ticket people who said mean things to them. And the people who got the tickets were disproportionately Black.

These tickets had real-world consequences, too. Out of a sample of the citations, it appeared that a few defendants paid a fine of around $110, and a couple successfully pleaded “not guilty.” Most received an additional $300 fine for not showing up at court. That’s a lot of grocery money.

What’s Happening Now: Good news: The city backed down and said it will stop enforcing the law. Then the City Council repealed it. It’s now no longer illegal to say “fuck that bullshit” to the police.

Bad news: I submitted a new request under California law to see if I could get a hold of more documents related to the city attorney’s decision-making process for sedition citations. They told me they’ve never prosecuted anyone under this (former) law, and then they rejected my request, claiming attorney-client privilege and “greater public interest in nondisclosure.”

Jail Whistleblower Recalls Inmate’s Horrific Death

Kelly Davis, contributor

The Story: Longtime Sheriff’s Employee Contradicts Official Account of Jail Death

What It’s About: In May 2016, Heron Moriarty, a father of three who was struggling with serious mental illness, died by suicide in the Vista jail. His wife filed a lawsuit over his death, arguing that the Sheriff’s Department should have placed him on suicide watch. Michelle’s attorney thought the county had provided him with a list of all possible witnesses — something they’re legally obligated to do — until a jail medical records clerk told him that she’d confronted a sergeant about concerns for Moriarty’s safety, but was told to “stand down.” She said that since then, she’s lived “with guilt and remorse for staying quiet.”

Why the Writer Liked It: A signed declaration describes Moriarty’s howls filling the jail “like a wounded animal crying out for help.” It’s a troubling read that highlights the need for better systems of care for folks suffering from serious mental illnesses. Too many people end up in jail instead of treatment, and too many have died as a result. Only through lawsuits — and people like being willing to come forward — can the public get a true picture of these lapses in care.

What’s Happening Now: A judge agreed that jail employee could be called as a witness. The case was heading for trial but in early October it was transferred to a new judge.

S.D. Statues Are a Man’s Game. Let’s Change That.

Randy Dotinga, contributor

The Story: From Columbus to Gwynn, Our Statues Are a Men’s Club. Let’s Reach Higher

What It’s About: I wrote a lot about local history for VOSD in 2020, exploring our pandemic past, the life and legacy of Ellen Browning Scripps, our bloody history of public protest, the forgotten stories of pioneering black teachers and more. But my most impactful article was a commentary about how we honor the past and those who lived in it: I called for a statue of Sally Ride, the late astronaut, UC San Diego scientist and LGBT icon.

Why the Writer Liked It: My commentary highlighted the stunning gender gap in how we honor the leading lights of San Diego history. As I discovered, only two – two! – of about 60 public statues in the county depict real women. Almost all honor men, including one who’s still living (!). Even the pooch depicted in a downtown statue is male. He was a very good dog, but still.

What’s Happening Now: Ride’s partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, and others got in touch with me to say they love the idea of a statue. UCSD is an ideal place for a statue of Ride, and the university is interested. But the pandemic seems to have put planning on hold.

Help-Less: The Stark Limits of Assisted Living

Jared Whitlock, contributor

The Story: COVID-19 Exposes Lack of Medical Staff in Assisted Living Facilities

What It’s About: Through a records request, I obtained 911 calls that revealed a lack of onsite nurses and doctors at the Elmcroft of La Mesa assisted-living facility during a deadly COVID-19 outbreak.

Like nursing homes, assisted living facilities are filled with seniors who are vulnerable to COVID-19 – or other issues like resident falls. But unlike nursing homes, these facilities aren’t required to have medical directors or around-the-clock nursing.

Why the Writer Liked It: I searched for potential solutions. Included in the piece were two operators of assisted living facilities who fit medical professionals into the budget. A professor advocated financing reforms, including assisted-living facilities sharing in savings if they reduce hospitalizations. And an industry watchdog talked regulatory changes. Readers responded to the emphasis on potential reforms.

What’s Happening Now: Amid COVID-19, there’s widespread desire to revamp care at nursing homes. Assisted living facilities get less attention. As far as I know, state legislators haven’t taken up major overhauls of the assisted-living industry.

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