NewsTeam 10 Investigates


Mayor’s staff approved military training that rattled San Diegans

Todd Gloria’s office says it will insist on community outreach in the future
Posted at 4:38 PM, Feb 22, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-23 09:10:36-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — Two of San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria’s senior staff members signed off on a military training exercise that rattled residents early in 2023, emails obtained by Team 10 show.

The training during a week last January into February involved loud bangs going off and military helicopters speeding next to balconies at night. Some choppers even briefly landed on top of buildings and on the ground in residential neighborhoods.

“We thought there was some horrible terrorism going on,” downtown resident Rob Quigley told ABC 10News last year.

Quigley lives on the fifth floor and said a chopper was at eye level.

“It flew right towards the library. Like I thought it was going to crash into the library," he says.

RELATED: Downtown San Diego residents rattled by military training near high-rise apartments

Residents were never warned about the Army Special Forces training.

Last year, the mayor's office told ABC 10News the matter wasn't something for them to discuss because it was "a military operation and the mayor has nothing to do with it."

Now emails obtained by Team 10's Adam Racusin through a public records request are giving new insight on the training.

In one email to the mayor, a Point Loma resident complained she was woken up by extremely loud aircraft noise.

Resident: ‘Totally unacceptable and unsafe’

“This was terrifying as we thought it was possibly a plane crashing. Our neighbors saw it was two groups of four large helicopters which flew low and directly over our homes and then banked left toward North Island,” she wrote.

The resident told the mayor “We feel it is totally unacceptable and unsafe to have this activity directly over a residential neighborhood.”

She said she’s lived in her house for 67 years and had never experienced anything like this before.

Complaints from the public caught the attention of Gloria.

Military helicopters fly above homes in Point Loma last year.

The mayor sent an ABC 10News story on residents' concerns to his deputy director of government affairs asking if his office had any information on why the training happened.

Walter Bishop replied, “Hi Sir - yeah the team, adding Chloe here too, has been involved all week.”

He added “These operations are usually to mimic something the special forces will be doing overseas. After the letter of invitation is provided (which we provide and is signed by you in this case it was to the US Army) the coordination happens with PD.”

Bishop told Gloria the city hadn’t received complaints in the past about the training.

'People were running for their lives'

“But what I think makes this different is that the helos were over residential neighborhoods (Pt Loma and elsewhere) and complaints came in about that with noise,” Walt Bishop, the Deputy Director of Government Affairs for the city, wrote in an email.

In another email, the mayor’s senior policy advisor Chloe Madison said the city had given the Army the green light to proceed with training at the former Barrett Youth Detention Facility located east of Jamul.

“This entire process was a mess to coordinate,” she tells another city staffer.

RELATED: Military addresses low-flying helicopters, exercises that startled residents

For downtown resident Audrey Reynolds, the noise wasn’t her biggest concern. She told ABC 10News reporter Ryan Hill she thought San Diego was under attack.

“There were people down here saying, "Oh my God, what do I do? Like people were running for their lives. People, we thought we were getting invaded.”

Last February, Team 10 asked for emails between the city and the Army, who approved the training, the reason for it and the communication plan to the public. The city replied last October that it had no responsive documents.

Team 10 recently received the emails mentioned in this story as the result of a second public records request.

Mayor’s office response

The mayor’s communications director told Team 10 staff in Gloria’s office weren’t given specific details of the training the Army Special Forces were doing or warned of its potential impacts.

A helicopter is spotted flying low in Point Loma near a park it briefly landed at for military training.

“The Army coordinated with the San Diego Police Department throughout the week of the exercise to ensure they knew what was going on,” Rachel Laing said in a prepared statement.

She added as a proud military town, San Diego has always been eager to support military readiness. Laing said the city had never to anyone’s knowledge had a previous incident that alarmed the civilian population like the Army’s training did.

“Based on this incident, in vetting such requests in the future, this administration will insist on additional details and that community outreach be conducted in advance to avoid a situation in which people are confused or scared by an exercise," the statement says.

Team 10 investigative reporter Austin Grabish can be reached by email