SAN DIEGO, Calif. – The video released Friday of the shooting death of Alfred Olango by El Cajon Police raises disturbing if sadly familiar questions about how police handle crisis calls involving people of color in general, and people of color with disabilities in particular. Mr. Olango’s death is an all too familiar part of what is a national epidemic of police use of deadly force. Mr. Olango did not have to die.
Mr. Olango was shot to death after his sister made repeated calls for emergency assistance to come and help her brother. The information provided by Mr. Olango’s sister resulted in police dispatch classifying the case as a “5150” – the code that alerts officers that the call concerns a person having a mental health crisis. It is not a secret that the traditional police culture of compliance can be fatal to people who, because of mental illness or intellectual disability, do not immediately understand and comply with police orders. People with disabilities may react differently to bright lights, shouted commands, and moments of heightened tension.
In the short video excerpt released Friday we see officers rush to the scene and in less than one minute confront and shoot Mr. Olango. They knew he was experiencing a mental health crisis, though it appears that they proceeded without giving this knowledge the weight it deserved. The video raises serious questions about whether proper de-escalation tactics were used to respond to a call of a person going through a mental health crisis.
Absent an immediate threat that cannot be contained, using lethal force against a person who is noncompliant because of mental illness or disability is a violation of that person’s civil rights. In this case, we must answer the question of whether the behavior of the officers created a situation where Mr. Olango, because of his mental state, acted in a way that appeared to be a threat even when he was not.
There’s still much we don’t know about this incident. Before releasing video Friday, the El Cajon Police Department released a single still of Mr. Olango pointing what was later identified as a vape device at the responding officers. El Cajon Police Chief Jeff Davis said that the still was released in the name of transparency and to calm the community. In releasing the single frame without context, however, the ECPD appears more interested in defending the department’s version of events than providing the public with objective information.
If the department wishes to engage in real transparency and build community trust, they must release all information regarding this shooting. We call on El Cajon Police Department to release all remaining footage and all recordings of communications, including 911 calls and communications between responding officers and dispatch, leading up to the killing of Mr. Olango. This information will help answer critical questions:
- What were responding officers told by dispatch?
- How, if at all, did the designation of the call as a “5150” impact the response of the officers?
- Is 50 minutes the typical response time to a mental health crisis (5150) call?
- Were the officers that responded to the scene trained to respond to de-escalate mental health crises? If so, how recently were they trained?
- Does the El Cajon Police Department have adequate resources to respond to the volume of mental health crisis calls it receives?
The chain of events that led to a police officer shooting Mr. Olango started long before the 1:37 minute video that was released today. Mr. Olango’s family and the San Diego community deserve to know the complete story. The shooting of Mr. Olango, is yet another example of the fact that our system of policing, in El Cajon and across the country, is incomplete, ineffective, or broken. We call for accountability and answers from the El Cajon Police Department.
This incident also shows that police departments should not be handling calls to assist people experiencing mental health crises as first responders – at least not on their own. Psychiatric Emergency Response Teams (PERT), which pair law enforcement officers with licensed mental health professionals to respond to emergency calls involving mental health crises, work county-wide to de-escalate situations where a person is having a mental health crisis, avoiding negative police interactions with people in need. The unavailability of PERT responders in the shooting death of Mr. Olango by police only highlights the urgent need for strong, continued investment in PERT and other mental health services to not endanger the lives of individuals and police officers. In incidences when police are the sole responders to these calls, they should be equipped with the training to interact appropriately and safely with people experiencing mental health crises, to protect their constitutional rights and their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, to ensure that more people of color and people with disabilities are not needlessly killed by the police who are responsible for protecting them.
Someone who needs mental health assistance needs a mental health professional to respond, not just the police. The Olango family, El Cajon, and the broader San Diego community deserve the complete story of everything that led to Alfred Olango’s tragic death.