By Jonathan Goetz
October 2, 2016 (El Cajon) -- The shooting of a black man reportedly suffering a mental health crisis in El Cajon by police has led to protests, and police crack-downs. After an officer advanced toward Alfred Olango, gun drawn at close range, Olango allegedly pointed a vape pen, or smoking device, at the officer, who mistook it for a gun and fired the deadly shots.
El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells, a clinician and former Director of Psychiatric Intake Services and Director of Outpatient Services, voiced support and empathy for both Olango’s family and for police in the City’s carefully crafted official response.
But many may not be aware that El Cajon’s City Council has been trying to address problems with the homeless and the mentally ill for quite some time. At its June 14th 2016 meeting, the El Cajon City Council voted to join San Diego County Mental Health and the Sheriffs in the East County Homeless Outreach Team, which embeds social workers with police and travels weekly to homeless hot-spots.
Councilmember Star Bales, who was once embedded with US troops in Iraq as a translator, cast her vote in favor. “We can’t just send these people up or downstream,” she said in Council deliberations, “It’s about getting them help.”
Six-term El Cajon Councilman Bob McClellan encouraged the teams to get rid of the homeless by breathalyzing them.
El Cajon Council candidate Humbert Cabrera told the East County Magazine that the reason to include social workers in conjunction with police when responding to issues regarding transiency or mental illness is because if you take a homeless person to jail, they just come right back to the same street corner, their home, upon release.
Another reason could be to try and avert violence when police are called to deal with a person who is mentally ill or suffering a mental breakdown. Olango was reportedly in mental health crisis after loss of a friend; his sister called 911 reported he was not acting like himself.
Some psychiatric experts have suggested that this less confrontational approach might have prevented Olango’s death. One social worker told ECM that approaching a suspect in mental crisis with a gun drawn is apt to result in the person feeling threatened and reacting in an inappropriate or illogical way, as when Olango pulled out a vaping pen and pointed it at police, sealing his fate. Having a trained professional attempt to talk with the individual can sometimes defuse a tense situation.
Some have questioned why a psychiatric emotional response team (PERT) didn’t greet Olango, instead of Officer Richard Gonsalves, whose demotion was covered here. Police have said a PERT team was out on another call at the time.
Although the City implemented some recommendations of a San Diego Grand Jury Report, Council rejected the Grand Jury’s recommendation that it establish a Citizen’s Police Oversight Committee to assure confidence in the Police Department, contending that its department did not have use of force issues in need of oversight. The Grand Jury made the same recommendation for other East County cities that also rejected that recommendation.
Some critics of the Olango shooting have called for body cameras for El Cajon Police. In fact, Council already did authorize purchase of body cameras for officers, on August 9, 2016.
According to several Council members, police body cameras improve everyone’s behavior, both officers and residents.
The cameras did not arrive before the Olango shooting, but should provide valuable evidence in any future use of force incidents.