Earl McNeil’s family is demanding answers from the National City, California, police department.

A pho­to of McNeil in the hos­pi­tal in the days after his inter­ac­tion with the National City Police Department that was blown up into a poster for Tuesday’s protest

In the ear­ly morn­ing hours of Saturday, May 26, Earl McNeil, a 40-year-old African American man with a his­to­ry of men­tal health issues, walked up to the tele­phone attached to the front of the police depart­ment build­ing in National City, California. According to police, McNeil told the dis­patch­ers on the oth­er end of the phone that he was high, had a war­rant out for his arrest, and “want­ed to kill Jesus.”

The National City Police Department is housed in an impos­ing con­crete build­ing on National City Boulevard, the main thor­ough­fare of the low-income, a pre­dom­i­nant­ly Latinx city that sits just to the south of San Diego, and a lit­tle more than 10 miles from the U.S.-Mexico bor­der. It was a few miles from where McNeil had been liv­ing, accord­ing to his rel­a­tives. Prompted by the con­ver­sa­tion with dis­patch­ers, offi­cers met McNeil out­side the police sta­tion, and soon after arrest­ed him on sus­pi­cion of being under the influ­ence of drugs.

When McNeil was tak­en out of the sta­tion sev­er­al hours lat­er, he was secured in the stiff nylon blan­ket and restraints known by police offi­cers as the “WRAP.” Officers put him in the back of a police car to check him into San Diego Central Jail for pro­cess­ing. But by the time he arrived at the jail, McNeil was in med­ical dis­tress, and he died 16 days lat­er.

His death has sparked an out­cry from fam­i­ly mem­bers and com­mu­ni­ty activists who have demand­ed more infor­ma­tion from the police about the cir­cum­stances of his death.

At a City Council meet­ing on June 19, Rodriguez lis­tened to com­ments from com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers with a vis­i­ble smirk on his face, enrag­ing advo­cates and McNeil’s fam­i­ly mem­bers

An unexplained death

McNeil’s fam­i­ly is des­per­ate for answers about what hap­pened on May 26. According to a spokesper­son from the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, McNeil was “reject­ed” for book­ing by the sheriff’s depart­ment, and remained in the cus­tody of the police depart­ment. “The Sheriff’s Department can­not com­ment on what may or may not have tran­spired while he was in the cus­tody of NCPD,” the spokesper­son told The Appeal. After he was reject­ed by cen­tral book­ing, para­medics were called to assist him — and McNeil lost con­scious­ness soon after they arrived, accord­ing to a state­ment released by the police depart­ment.

The red cour­tesy phone out­side the National City Police Department that police said McNeil used to con­tact them
Credit: Max Rivlin-Nadler

But the police have released lim­it­ed details about the inci­dent, despite a grow­ing pub­lic out­cry — nobody cam­era footage, no names of offi­cers involved in McNeil’s arrest, no sur­veil­lance footage from the precinct itself. The results of McNeil’s autop­sy have yet to be released to the fam­i­ly, although the police chief told the San Diego Union-Tribune that pre­lim­i­nary infor­ma­tion from inves­ti­ga­tors present dur­ing the autop­sy found that there was no trau­ma on McNeil’s body.

McNeil’s fam­i­ly isn’t so sure. Photos they took while he was in the hos­pi­tal show bruis­es to his head and lac­er­a­tions to his body that they believe were caused at some point dur­ing the hours he was in National City police cus­tody.

In the state­ment released in the days fol­low­ing McNeil’s death, the police said that McNeil was “inten­tion­al­ly hurt­ing him­self” dur­ing the trip to the coun­ty jail, despite being con­fined to the WRAP. The police did not respond direct­ly to the family’s alle­ga­tions or to a request for com­ment from The Appeal.

Tammy Davis, McNeil’s aunt, said she had to leave a meet­ing with the police chief, Manuel Rodriguez, because he kept smil­ing, and he refused to apol­o­gize for or elab­o­rate on what hap­pened to McNeil when he was in cus­tody.

There was a smile on the chief’s face and he was shak­ing his head. Every ques­tion we asked, he couldn’t give an answer,” Davis said. “He had a smile on his face from the time we start­ed the meet­ing to the time we left the meet­ing.” Rodriguez did not respond to requests for com­ment.

At a City Council meet­ing on June 19, Rodriguez lis­tened to com­ments from com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers with a vis­i­ble smirk on his face, enrag­ing advo­cates and McNeil’s fam­i­ly mem­bers (Rodriguez dis­putes that he was smirk­ing and instead says he was just try­ing to keep a “calm” face.) At the same City Council meet­ing, Tasha Williamson, a com­mu­ni­ty activist who has been work­ing with the McNeil fam­i­ly, was arrest­ed after she went over her allot­ted speak­ing time and refused to leave the podi­um.

She said the police’s asser­tion that he hurt him­self is ridicu­lous. “I was hor­ri­fied by their state­ments because we had actu­al­ly gone to the hos­pi­tal the day they pulled the plug and saw his body,” Williamson said. She wants to know why they won’t release footage from his time in cus­tody. “It just feels like a cov­er-up. It feels like they think we’ll go away.”

All body cam­era footage cap­tured by the National City police is acces­si­ble by the San Diego dis­trict attorney’s office. The police department’s pol­i­cy for offi­cer-involved shoot­ings is not to release the video “until the dis­trict attorney’s inde­pen­dent review of the inci­dent has been com­plet­ed and the find­ings have been pro­vid­ed to the law enforce­ment agency involved.” The police depart­ment could not con­firm if the same pol­i­cy applies to sur­veil­lance footage, or whether there’s a dif­fer­ent pol­i­cy for inci­dents involv­ing arrestees injured while in cus­tody.

Last month in Sacramento, police released body cam­era video of a man who died in police cus­tody just a week after his death and released exten­sive sur­veil­lance footage with­in the month.

A Distressed Man Came to a Police Station Looking for Help. Hours Later, He Was In a Coma.