Fatal police shooting was justified, San Diego district attorney finds

The District Attorney’s Office has determined that the fatal shooting of Alfred Olango, an unarmed black man, by El Cajon police last year was justified and that the officer will not face criminal charges.

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis made the announcement at a news conference Tuesday afternoon at the downtown Hall of Justice.

“The law recognizes police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving. As prosecutors we have an ethical duty to follow the law and only charge individuals when we have proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Dumanis said. “…The only reasonable conclusion was the officer’s actions were justified.”

The announcement comes more than three months after Olango, 38, was shot during an altercation in the parking lot behind a taco shop in a strip mall, which thrust San Diego County into an ongoing national conversation about the relationship between police agencies and communities of color.

“In many ways, the response in San Diego County to this shooting is reflective of a bigger picture,” Dumanis said. “…We are living in a time where the actions of police officers are under scrutiny more than ever, especially when it comes to police shootings.”

The District Attorney’s Office also discussed at the news conference the fatal officer-involved shootings of four other men in San Diego County: David Moya, Sergio Weick, Juan Carlos Fernandez and Trenton Lohman. Those shootings were also ruled to be justified.

Police said the officers who confronted Olango at 2:10 p.m. on Sept. 27 believed he was armed with a weapon, which was later revealed to be an e-cigarette device.

Immediately after the shooting, protesters marched for days in the streets and near Broadway and Mollison Avenue where the shooting occurred. Most of the protests were peaceful, but authorities said there were incidents of violence — breaking car windows and throwing rocks and bottles at police and sheriff’s deputies — and there were arrests.

Database: Fatal officer-involved shootings in San Diego County, 1980-2017 »

Early on, the protesters demanded that city and county authorities release any and all video footage of the shooting to the public.

El Cajon Police Chief Jeff Davis initially released only a still photo from one video, showing Olango aiming an object — the e-cigarette device — at one of the officers. He had taken what police called a “shooting stance.”

A couple of days later, Davis and El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells held a news conference to release two videos: one from a witness’ cellphone, and the other from a security camera at the Los Panchos taco shop. Other top law enforcement officials also were there, including Dumanis and Sheriff Bill Gore.

The day of the shooting Olango’s sister had called police saying she wanted help for him because he wasn’t “acting like himself.” Other people who called 911 said a man was acting erratically and walking into traffic.

Two officers approached Olango in the parking lot, one with a gun drawn, the other with a Taser — a common police tactic, Dumanis said.

Four law officer shootings around San Diego County justified »

Cellphone and security camera video released by authorities showed Olango backing up against a white pickup, then “suddenly” pulling a shiny object from his front pants pocket and aiming it at one of the officers, Dumanis said.

Dumanis said the video showed that Olango made a motion appearing to fire a gun, which included making a fake recoil action. She said the officer responded with a ducking motion to protect himself.

Both police officers almost simultaneously fired at Olango. Officer Josh McDaniel fired the Taser. Officer Richard Gonsalves fired his gun four times, fatally wounding the Ugandan refugee who family and friends would later say was struggling with the death of a close friend.

Dumanis said six witnesses were interviewed.

A witness told investigators that he could tell Olango had something else in his pocket besides his hand, Dumanis said. Olango’s sister also pleaded with him to take his hand out, the district attorney said.

One witness told investigators that she thought the object was a gun based on Olango’s motions, adding that she thought the shooting was valid: “The cop had every right — shoot or be killed.”

On the cellphone video of the shooting, a witness can be heard in Spanish saying, “The cop was in the right, he wouldn’t take out his hand.”

The District Attorney’s Office investigated the incident, as it does all officer-involved shootings in the county. The office is tasked with determining whether the officer should be held criminally liable for his actions, and the review does not consider issues regarding department policies, training, tactics, discipline, less-lethal force options or whether there is a civil liability, Dumanis said.

She said the manner in which Olango abruptly pulled out the object from his pocket — rather than slowly complying with the officer’s demands — was “critical in determining whether the officer’s fear of being shot was reasonable under the circumstances.”

Some protesters — including Olango’s father, Richard Olango Abuka — have balked at the idea of having the county district attorney investigate such shootings, saying Dumanis cannot make an independent assessment of the incident because of her close ties to local law enforcement.

The Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network, a civil rights group, and the Rev. Shane Harris, president of the organization’s San Diego chapter, have called on the Justice Department to investigate the shooting.

Olango’s relatives have also filed wrongful-death claims with the city, which are precursors to lawsuits.

Olango had encounters with law enforcement before September’s fatal shooting. Because of drug and firearm convictions, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had twice tried to deport him.

Mayor Wells declined to discuss Dumanis’ findings Tuesday afternoon, saying he hadn’t yet read the report.

Chief Davis said at the City Council meeting that he could not comment on Dumanis’ findings or Gonsalves. He was unable to comment on whether the officer remained on paid administrative leave.

Staff writer Karen Pearlman contributed to this report.

Previously:

Man shot, killed by El Cajon police officer

Protesters take over El Cajon streets, gather at site of fatal police shooting

Emotional crowd says Olango killed for being black, mentally ill

Family demands release of Olango shooting video

El Cajon protests continue after release of police shooting video

Olango family files new claim in police shooting

Olango’s father calls for DOJ probe of police shooting

Alfred Olango: A difficult life’s tragic end in El Cajon

dana.littlefield@sduniontribune.com

Twitter: @danalittlefield


UPDATES:

2:44 p.m.: This article was updated with the district attorney’s findings.

This article was originally published at 12:35 p.m.

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