By Jonathan Goetz
Miriam Raftery contributed to this story.
October 13, 2016 (El Cajon) — During public comment at Tuesday’s El Cajon City Council hearing, residents voiced a range of opinions on the recent police shooting of Alfred Olango, an African refugee reportedly suffering a mental health crisis when an officer advanced on him, gun drawn, then fired after Olango drew a vaping device resembling a gun out of his pocket and pointed it at the officer.
Here are highlights of public comments on the shooting:
Timothy Breuninger, an EL Cajon resident of almost 20 years, gave a spirited play by play account of a 1932 Yankees game in which people were throwing lemons at Babe Ruth, and said that some people have been throwing more than lemons at El Cajon Police, setting a theme of throwing lemons at police to which three or four speakers throughout the night referenced. He thanked police for “all that you all do for our city,” prompting applause mainly from the west side of the City Council Chambers in El Cajon on Tuesday.
Blake Halvin, a lifelong resident of El Cajon, echoed those sentiments. “It wasn’t until recently that I learned all that goes on with El Cajon and the police department,” he said. “Thank you. I know there are plenty of people throwing more than rocks at you, and we realize how blessed we are.”
Jerry Turchin stated, ”Life is precious. The worst thing is a life lost senselessly. The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference. Dialogue is key, and let’s not have a situation where it’s us against them. We being the key word that we’re not adversarial, we all need to be aware of different viewpoints. I’ve been in business in El Cajon for 36 years and never regretted it. My family is very involved in the community and we hope that our involvement makes it a better place, as it has been for us. We have never regretted coming here. Things may have been tough but I’ve never regretted it. I hope that our community involvement and can make it a better place to be.”
Russell Bowman, senior pastor at Righteous Living Ministry, has been in El Cajon for 15 years. ”I am here speaking as a community leader on behalf of our community and the first thing that I want to address, I don’t think no lemons are being thrown. I don’t think we’re necessary anti-police, but we’re for transparency. We’re not going away. We’re not leaving; we’re not bowing down; we’re not laying down. We can protest peacefully, we have our First Amendment rights. We’re not going away and we’re not ending it; we’re just beginning,” he concluded, drawing applause mainly from the east side of Council Chambers.
David Garcias from Service Employees International Union Local 221, stated, “We’re standing here to support the community, but also our faith leaders, and the Olango family. We need to ask those difficult questions and you as our elected officials need. Wouldn’t it have been different if a PERT (psychiatric emergency response team) team had shown up… Wouldn’t it be great if you had a local PERT team instead of just the regional one,” and concluded strengthfully to Council “we appreciate that with your leadership there is transparency and justice for all.”
Anthony Jimenez, president of a group called Police Our Police, said, “I’m on the same page, we’re not throwing lemons. A life was taken, and instead of that being noticed, things like propaganda are in the news. There are certain laws that you guys said need to be followed. I would like to see more accountability. I would like to think that a PERT team would have changed the outcome. If you guys had better training, a lot of things wouldn’t have gone that way. I’ve been there with the protestors, trying to make sure things stay peaceful.”
Mayor Bill Wells responded, “Mr. Jimenez, if you really are part of trying to keep it peaceful, I want to thank you.” As Jimenez returned to his seat, he was visibly moved by the Mayor’s welcoming and cordial tone during Council Testimony in El Cajon.
The Mayor later noted that protests in after the shooting were mostly peaceful and did not escalate to the violent levels seen in other cities, a comment that was echoed in subsequent public comment.
Mayor is a part-time job in El Cajon, a City of 100,000 people in East County, and Mayor Wells works in the mental health field for his full-time job.
Phil Ortiz voiced thanks for how the situation has been handled by authorities locally following the shooting of Olango. “We’ve heard of how it’s worked in other communities, with rioting, people burning down the businesses. San Diego’s different…You guys prepared…didn’t turn a blind eye…”
Kevin Miller told Council, “Adversity is the crucible in which character is formed. I really agree with what so many people have said so far this afternoon… We’re not going anywhere and we solve problems by people working together for transparency, for dialogue. ..I want to encourage you that what we see so far is really important and it is building character in El Cajon. I really appreciate that there are people putting their lives on the line” to enthusiastic applause from the room filled to capacity, but not requiring outside sound amplification the City was prepared for in case attendance exceeded capacity.
Victor Mosso offered an emotional statement. “I just feel tremendous sorrow for the loss of any human being, and that goes out to the entire Olango family…my prayer for the officer involved is that he finds peace in life… I don’t care what color you are, what ethnicity, we’re all children of God. I just hope and pray that we can get back to being the peaceful city we were before this tragedy.”
Bonnie Price said she shared the grief of the Olango family, then took the City to task for demoting, not firing, Officer Richard Gonsalves over sexual harassment allegations. Gonsalves fired the shots that killed Olango. She recalled that about a year ago, ”Ray Lutz had the Citizens Oversight Project and I and others of the group came here to ask you for a citizens’ oversight committee (to oversee police). That was prompted by a complaint that became a legal issue on sexual harassment of an officer who was recently involved in the shooting of the Olango family. Recently you voted down the Citizens Oversight Commission (COC). You should have the COC to help you in making decisions based on who to keep and who to not keep on the force. We wanted that officer to be terminated. He was not, and the city is now reaping the grief that comes from that. It’s very important; we would like to make sure that a citizens’ oversight body is created and this rogue officer and other who may be in the force may no longer be allowed to continue doing what they are doing. Not all police are in the category of [this] man, we should have more police hired to do the job,” she noted.
Pricilla Schreiber, Trustee on the Grossmont Union School District Board, spoke to Council urging opposition to Proposition 64 (the marijuana legalization measure) but also touched on police issues. “Our school district has had a long position with El Cajon Police, providing officers on our campus…I believe one of the added benefits to our students is that they see officers associated with safety. A partnership is never more important than when tested in difficult times, so I am here to thank you for your role in helping keep our children safe.”
Jim Cunningham, an El Cajon Police Lieutenant retired after 28 years of service, stated, “I am no hero; but I have had the absolute and distinct honor to serve with heroes.” He criticized a statement by Mayor Wells that used the term “gunned down” regarding to the shooting. Wells later said he meant to show empathy for the Olango family without suggesting fault by the officer. But Cunningham accused Wells of “throwing the officer under the bus.” Of the shooting, he said, ”It was suicide by cop; the outcome of which is very predictable.”
Wilnisha Sutton said she is a community leader who has lived in the area for about five years. “It’s been two weeks today since Alfred Olango has been killed,” she said. ”The family has asked us to keep it peaceful. How come there has not been any motion for this officer to be on trial, something, this killer? I cannot wrap my mind upon the fact that the officer involved was sexually harassing women on this … force…In any regular job you would be fired for that. Had he been fired then we wouldn’t have this problem today. All I’m asking” There’s a PERT team, but is there a pervert team? As a woman I just don’t feel safe.”
Stephanie Harper, a candidate running for the Council, stated, “I’m here to represent the citizens. For the past year I have seen this Council ignore…We asked for a citizens’ oversight committee for our police department which every single one of you opposed. What do you plan on doing to fix this?”
Eric Bernie said bluntly, “I want to say that EL Cajon Police Department is doing a terrible job. The chief of police needs to be held accountable. The Council needs to be held accountable. We shouldn’t have to protect ourselves from [police].”
Rodney Stowers testified about racial disparity. ”In 1962, 85% of whites in the U.S. thought that black children had the same chance as doing well in American schools as black children. You guys tear up the constitution. Please tell your law enforcement to keep from bringing the war over here, keep that shi!t overseas.”
Ana Martinez: resident of El Cajon for over 26 years, talked about how Olango’s death is impacting young people. “My niece recently asked me last week, `Are my black classmates safe?’ And this is a nine year old. And think of the trauma this has had not just for her but her classmates. Mr. Olango, he should be here today, he was murdered. The rallies were peaceful; even my nieces were able to attend. Black lives matter.”
Farouk Gewarges, who came to El Cajon from Iraq countered, ”Without police there is chaos. They keep us safe. When I need help, I call the police, and they are the first ones to come and aid me.”
Tia Loper complained that the police are too nice to the homeless who are mainly Caucasian as compared to blacks. “I’ve seen the police shoo these people away who are not brown, not black, [and] treated with pity. Consistent diversity training is needed. Community oversight of police and procedures, police accountability is needed.”
Tony Sottile thanked the Mayor, saying, “Thank you for all the work you’ve done, Mayor Wells. I have heard here many half truths. One is social justice. I don’t think what we as a people need to be concerned with is social justice, it is royal justice. Justice of a king. What is the ultimate justice? Morality… When those people who were not being peaceful were confronted by police, they were protecting the rest of us.”
Mayor Wells concluded public comment, stating, “What happened in the last week was one of the most stressful tragic events in the history of our city. What’ I’d like to say is that I’ve heard from every side of this. What I’ve not heard is anyone who didn’t take this very seriously. The police take this very seriously, the protestors keep this very seriously, the police take this very seriously. You should be commended for your restraint and I appreciate it. There is not one person here who doesn’t take the situation seriously. We have a fine police department. I can tell you from talking to officers that there is not a man or woman in the police department who does not want to see this handled in a way that the community heals.“ He urged that the community not be divided, adding, ”I would just like to ask you all to keep the thought of healing at the forefront of your minds.”
Later in the meeting, the Council also voted to adopt a public nudity ban (4/0/1, McClellan absent). This legislation was sent to staff two years ago from Councilmember Tony Ambrose, due to complaints from business owners along the Second Street corridor complaining about homeless people changing in public. Cops said it was too difficult to meet the state’s definition proof of indecent exposure so staff created and Council approved a second reading of a nudity ban to cite homeless people for indecent exposure without the same burden of proof required under state law.