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National City Officials Can’t Hide Their Disdain for Police Protesters

Often when a citizen dies in police custody, officials respond with messages emphasizing civility and respect for all sides involved. But in National City, the mayor and police chief have made no secret of their distaste for activists demanding information about the circumstances surrounding the death of Earl McNeil.

Protesters seeking information about the death of Earl McNeil demonstrate during a meeting of the National City Council. / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

The reactions couldn’t have been further apart.

In 2016, protests were erupting in the streets of El Cajon over a fatal police shooting when Mayor Bill Wells stood before cameras and said, “We are open to dialogue, we are open to hearing your complaints.”

Contrast that with National City Mayor Ron Morrison, who told Voice of San Diego that he would not be participating in a town hall on policing because the activist-organizers behind the event lack the authority to make demands of him and the Police Department.

“I’m not answerable to them,” Morrison said. “Just because they bark orders, we won’t jump.”

The details of the cases differ in significant ways, but the result was the same: Two black men who reportedly suffered from mental illness died after encounters with police.

But National City officials’ response to the death of Earl McNeil stands alone when compared with other police-involved deaths like that of Alfred Olango in El Cajon and others across the country.

Activists and community members have asked for the city to release the names of the officers involved in the incident as well as body-worn camera footage from the morning of May 26, when McNeil came to the station offering to turn himself in on a possible warrant. National City police said McNeil was high and combative and so they put him in a restraining device.

At the county jail, he stopped breathing. He fell into a coma, and his family pulled him off life support on June 11.

The preliminary findings of the medical examiner suggest McNeil suffered a heart attack, according to the family’s attorney, who spoke to the U-T. But the family has also raised questions about bruising and other injuries on McNeil’s head and forehead.

Typically, city officials at least pay lip service to those demanding accountability and dialogue with the community following deaths involving the police. Often they go further by holding community meetings and making attempts to show that they are receptive to concerns – even if the incident in question hasn’t been fully investigated, or if authorities decide police acted properly.

Following the death of Stephon Clark in Sacramento earlier this year, for example, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg emphasized kindness and respect in his messaging.

“Emotions are understandably high. People are anguished. They’re angry and they are upset. I understand it, and we understand it,” the mayor said of protests, according to the Sacramento Bee. “I urge our community to remain peaceful, to respect one another, to try and be extra kind to each other. Let us channel our anguish into healing and to justice.”

But in National City, the mayor and police chief have spoken about activists demanding information about the circumstances surrounding McNeil’s death with open disdain.

National City Police Chief Manuel Rodriguez was captured on camera smirking as Tasha Williamson, a spokeswoman for the McNeil family, shouted at officials at a City Council meeting and was removed from the room by officers.

National City Police Chief Manuel Rodriguez reacts to a protester. / Image via Kris Arciaga, KPBS News

She and others have called for Rodriguez’s resignation.

Rodriguez said he’s seen some of the evidence for himself – including the parts in the body-worn camera footage where McNeil is placed in a restraining device and transported to jail – and believes his officers acted properly.

As for the smirk, Rodriguez said he can’t help the way he looks – he smiles a lot. The activists who’ve disrupted four consecutive City Council meetings are resorting to personal attacks, he said, because their “spotlight keeps changing.”

Williamson is trying to put together a town hall this month – around the same time the medical examiner’s report comes in – to talk about “conditions in the community.” She said she’s inviting the mayor and police chief.

Both told Voice they’re not interested. Both believe the activists are making insincere demands because they don’t live in National City.

“Clearly, they’ve shown they are not interested in dialogue,” Rodriguez said. “They are more interested in creating chaos and hate and discontent.”

Cornelius Bowser, a pastor at the Apostolic Church in San Diego, said he’s prepared for the possibility that McNeil’s death was not the fault of any actions by an officer. Nevertheless, he and fellow activists would like to engage officials about the larger issues in their communities – a severe lack of trust toward law enforcement, which bleeds across city lines – and the dismissive way in which they believe their demands for more information have been met.

Officials say they want to uphold the integrity of the investigation by staying neutral until the medical examiner’s report is completed. Yet Bowser feels that the details about McNeil’s interactions with police officers on May 26, which have trickled down to the public – like his spitting at personnel while being arrested – are anything but neutral.

Those details are intended to implant an insidious thought in the mind of observers, Bowser said: “Maybe he deserved to die.”

Through its surrogates, the McNeil family has accused Rodriguez of clearing his officers of any wrongdoing before the investigation has concluded.

Bowser and Williamson live in southeastern San Diego, as did McNeil. Williamson said she was approached by the McNeil family to mobilize on their behalf and draw attention to the case.

Official statements aside, National City has tried in recent years to improve the image of its police department, but those efforts have sometimes lacked follow-through.

For instance, the city created the Community and Police Relations Commission a decade ago to provide oversight of internal investigations. But as the U-T recently pointed out, the mayor has been slow to fill vacancies, which has made it difficult to form a quorum. The commission hasn’t met since late last year, and it hasn’t published an annual report of its findings since 2015.

Even then, the commission only considered three cases in 2014, citing the limited number of times it had met. That same year, there had been 57 use-of-force complaints.

Morrison said he doesn’t think the current applicants can objectively judge those complaints – a conclusion he’s drawn in part by looking at their Facebook pages. They want to turn the commission, he said, into “a grievance group looking over the shoulder of police and second-guessing them.”

Morrison also defended the chief’s decision not to release the body-worn camera footage right away, and said he feels the activists have pushed him into a trap: release the footage quickly and be accused of framing the narrative to the city’s advantage; wait until the medical examiner finishes his work and be accused of buying time to cover up a murder.

He wishes people would recognize just how far the National City Police Department has come in its hiring practices. Thirty years ago, he said, the city’s police chief intentionally picked up officers who had been dismissed by other agencies for being too aggressive.

“We had a reputation for being a cowboy police department, but that has not been true for 25 years,” he said. “The police department today is nowhere near that nature.”

Despite the complete breakdown in dialogue, the mayor believes police relations in his city have significantly improved.

Protesters demanding information about the death of Earl McNeil confront Sheriff’s deputies. / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

The National City police union was scheduled to hold a press conference Monday with the two City Council members, Mona Rios and Alejandra Sotelo-Solis, who’ve expressed sympathies for the protesters by asking that the McNeil death investigation be a topic of conversation on an agenda. The police union sent a letter last week to the local Kiwanis and Rotary clubs, obtained by the Star News, that included talking points for neighbors, such as: “We the community, have an outstanding relationship with our police department and believe the investigation will show the facts of the event.”

But the press conference never happened, for reasons that are still unclear.

Over the weekend, Morrison posted a comment on the same Star News story calling Rios and Sotelo-Solis hypocrites and grandstanders for suddenly trying to buddy up to local cops. He seconded Councilman Albert Mendivil, who said the councilwomen had “already showed their colors,” according to the Star News.

Morrison also accused the activists of spitting on cops – a charge that several adamantly deny. Were that true, they say, they would have been charged with a crime.

Art Fusco, a videographer who’s livestreamed several of the press conferences and protests, said Morrison and other officials have made no effort to understand where fellow activists are coming from. Although disappointing on one hand, he said the statements coming from National City leaders have also inspired them to keep going.

“It only makes us believe more and more that this city and its [police] department has something to hide,” Fusco said.

Morrison conceded that the bombast may be counterproductive, but said he’s being blasted from all angles. “At some point,” he said, “you’ve gotta say, ‘Enough is enough.’”

Activists say they’ve seen these tactics before, heard the same justifications and excuses for years, and the attempt to change the subject without addressing the underlying frustration won’t work.

“We’re not foolish. We’re a different generation. We don’t want to hear that nonsense,” said Apollo Olango, the brother of the man shot and killed by El Cajon police in 2016. “We want to figure out how to solve these issues. And you’re lucky enough we want to discuss how to solve these issues as opposed to being combative.”

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