Updated at 6:10 p.m. Sept. 28, 2016
Boisterous crowds gathered at El Cajon police headquarters and marched through the East County city today for a second round of protests over the fatal police shooting of an unarmed and mentally unstable black man at a downtown strip mall.
Angry demonstrations stemming from the death of 30-year-old Uganda native Alfred Olango began Tuesday afternoon, shortly after he was mortally wounded during a confrontation with officers outside a fast-food restaurant near the intersection of Interstate 8 and state Route 67.
Protesters contend that the officer who shot Olango was unduly quick to open fire and that the decision was racially motivated. One man told reporters the victim had suffered a seizure just prior to the shooting, and another said Olango had his hands raised at the moment the shots rang out.
“These senseless killings have to stop — not just in El Cajon but in the entire country,” community activist Estela De Los Rios said.
For their part, police officials stated that Olango was uncooperative when contacted by patrol personnel, repeatedly refused to remove one of his hands from a pants pocket, assumed “what appeared to be a shooting stance,” produced some type of object and pointed it toward one of the officers.
Early this afternoon, the demonstrators noisily paraded through town to the area where the deadly encounter had played out less than 24 hours earlier. For a time, the throng blocked the intersection of Broadway and Mollison Avenue and faced off with a row of officers in riot gear.
Later in the afternoon, El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells told reporters he was “begging that El Cajon stay a peaceful, harmonious place.”
“That is, stay safe for our citizens, safe for our children — and (I ask) that everybody be patient and calm and let the process do what the process has to do,” he said.
In response to a reporter’s question, Wells acknowledged being concerned about the potential for the protests to turn violent.
“I see what’s happening all over the country,” the mayor said. “Of course I’m worried. … I don’t expect anything bad to happen, but I certainly don’t want to be caught unaware.”
The events that led to the fatal confrontation began when officers were dispatched to investigate a report of a mentally ill pedestrian behaving erratically and walking in traffic in a downtown district a few blocks north of El Cajon Valley High School.
Patrol personnel contacted the man, later identified as Olango, behind a fast-food restaurant in the 700 block of Broadway, police Capt. Frank LaHaye said.
Moments later, one of the officers shot Olango with an electric stun gun, and the other opened fire with his service gun. Witnesses reported hearing about five gunshots.
Medics took Olango to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Hours later, police released a still image lifted from citizen video taken at the shooting scene. It showed a man in a crouching stance, holding something up in front of him with two officers apparently training weapons on him.
Authorities have declined to make public the rest of the footage or disclose what Olango was holding, though they acknowledged it was not a gun. Some news agencies reported that he may have been clutching an electronic smoking device.
Protesters criticized the release of only one photo, instead of the entire video.
El Cajon police Chief Jeff Davis told reporters the officers involved in the shooting, each with more than 20 years of service, were placed on administrative leave for at least three days, as per protocol. He promised a thorough and transparent multi-agency investigation.
Some protesters questioned why personnel with special training to deal with the mentally ill were not dispatched to deal with Olango, who had been identified as troubled. They also called for a federal law enforcement investigation into the shooting.
A distraught woman who said she was Olango’s sister could be heard at the shooting scene asking why officers shot her brother after she called for help and identified him as mentally ill.
Some purported witnesses alleged that cellphones had been confiscated from bystanders at the scene. LaHaye countered that only one was impounded, and that it had been voluntarily turned over by an employee at a nearby restaurant.
“This was the only phone provided to officers in this investigation,” the captain said. “No other phones were taken from witnesses.”
Despite that claim, Norma Chavez-Peterson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego & Imperial Counties, noted that seizing witnesses’ recording devices violates the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
“The public has the right to film police in public places, and police officers may not confiscate or demand to view your digital photos or video without a warrant,” Chavez-Peterson said. “Under no circumstances may police officers delete your photos or videos.”
She said the agency would be “paying close attention as the details of this situation unfold.”
The mayor pledged to fully disclose the facts of the case as promptly as possibly.
“What I’d like to do is promise that I’m going to do everything in my power to heal the situation as quickly and as thoroughly as I possibly can,” he said. “That means being completely honest and being completely truthful with (the public) at all times.”
Wells told news crews he understood that those who were protesting the shooting “don’t feel heard.”
“I understand that they feel frustrated by a system that they sometimes feel is not working in their favor,” he said. “I understand that they are wanting more information, (and) that they are wanting it quickly.”
During the afternoon news conference, county Supervisor Dianne Jacob, whose district includes El Cajon, echoed the mayor’s pleas for peace in the wake of the traumatic event.
“I would encourage all citizens to remain calm, to remain patient, to let the authorities complete their investigation and not to jump to conclusions, not to judge prematurely on what maybe somebody thinks happened,” Jacob said.
Wells said he himself was holding off on any judgments, even though he has seen the full witness video of the shooting and was deeply affected by it.
“I saw a man who was distraught, a man who was acting in ways that looked like he was in great pain,” the mayor said. “And I saw him get gunned down and killed, and it broke my heart.”
According to friends, Olango was born in Kampala, Uganda, as one of nine children. His mother and siblings emigrated to New York as refugees in 1991, apparently because his father — who worked for the Ugandan president — made threats of violence against them.
The family eventually moved to Southern California, and Olango attended San Diego High School for a time before dropping out, though he later earned a GED. According to his Facebook page, he also studied at San Diego Mesa College and worked as a cook at a Hooters restaurant.
Olango’s death spurred expressions of suspicion and censure from many civil rights activists and watchdog agencies.
Christopher Rice-Wilson of Alliance San Diego said every death of a black man at the hands of police sends a message to the community to “stay in line.” He attributed what befell Olango to “three strikes” — being black, being mentally ill and not following orders.
“Black lives matter,” Rice-Wilson said. “And if a black life doesn’t matter, then no life matters.”
Ginger Jacobs, chairwoman of the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium, said it was “impossible for our communities to rely on police officers for help when they shoot first and ask questions later.”
“Communities of color and immigrant communities need to know that law enforcement agencies are here to serve and protect all people,” she said. “We demand that an independent investigation be conducted by an agency outside of the El Cajon Police Department or sheriff’s department.”
Mallory Webb of the NAACP’s Youth & College Division said police shootings of black people had made her “scared to walk the streets every single day.”
“That could be my little brother,” Webb said of Olango. “That could be my twin sister at any time, and I don’t know what to do.”
San Diego city attorney candidate Mara Elliott, a Democrat, called for release of video of the Olango shooting “without delay so that concerned citizens can understand what happened.”
She said prompt release would send a message that San Diego law enforcement is “committed to transparency, accountability and justice for every community. … I have full faith that our law enforcement agencies will investigate this tragedy fully and as swiftly as possible.
“I also believe that this tragic shooting underscores the importance of building trust between police and the community. We need greater understanding on both sides.”
— City News Service and staff reports