The streets are mostly quiet now in the city of El Cajon. Home to just over 100,000 people and twenty-two miles outside of the city of San Diego, there are few signs and scant evidence in the small dusty East County suburb of the great protests that erupted in the city just over a year ago following the extrajudicial slaying of Alfred Olango in the Broadway Plaza Shopping Center by El Cajon PD officer, Richard Gonsalves, last September. Last year, over the course of twenty-four hours, the city of El Cajon found itself caught in the middle of national attention, the focal point of yet another tragic and completely preventable shooting of an unarmed African-American man at the hands of an incompetent, negligent police officer with a long and well documented troubled past within the department. Like many officers with known histories of abuse and violence, Gonsalves should have been removed from the city’s police department long before the tragic events that transpired at 2:10 PM on September 27th, 2016. In the blink of eye, and in a hail of bullets the city joined the ranks of others such as Ferguson, MO, Baton Rouge, LA, St. Paul, MN, North Charleston, SC and far too many others to all list here all across the U.S. where police were once again complicit in the execution of an unarmed African-American man. The shooting ultimately sparked days of overwhelmingly peaceful protests in El Cajon, shutting down streets, temporarily shuttering businesses and triggering a heavy-handed militarized response from dozens of outside municipalities, some coming as far away as Oceanside in an attempt to mitigate and suppress protests throughout the city.
Alfred Olango was a 38-year-old, El Cajon resident and Ugandan refugee who came to the U.S. in 1991. On September 27th, 2016 Olango was shot and killed by the El Cajon Police Department (ECPD) in the Broadway Village Shopping Center parking lot, located on Broadway in El Cajon, CA following a 911 call made by his sister after he had suffered a mental breakdown brought on by the passing of a close childhood friend. Alfred Olango had committed no crime when his sister called 911, which she had made in hopes that authorities would help assist her brother. There were various instances on practically every level that day where both the city of El Cajon and the ECPD failed both Alfred Olango and his family. For one, it took over 50 minutes for officers to respond after his sister had called four times for help. A PERT team (Psychiatric Emergency Response Team) was not dispatched to diffuse the situation, even though a 5150 (involuntary psychiatric hold) call had been made. This ultimately resulted in Alfred Olango being shot and killed less than a minute after officer Gonsalves (pictured below) arrived on the scene making contact with him. Police failed to set up a safe perimeter when they knew beforehand that they were responding to a 5150 call. And finally, barely a minute after arriving on the scene, officer Gonsalves felt the need to fatally shoot Alfred Olango four times before he even hit the ground even though they were informed that he was unarmed beforehand. After all this, Alfred Olango was shot and killed for simply removing a hand from his pocket holding an object (determined immediately afterward to be a harmless e-cigarette device), even though another officer felt it was only necessary to use a taser.
Needless to say, this gross systematic failure on many levels galvanized the community in El Cajon to immediate action. In the days and weeks following the shooting a contingent of grassroots community organizers, activists, neighborhood residents and family members dubbing themselves ‘Olango Village’ occupied the shopping center where the shooting had taken place. In essence transforming the shopping center parking lot into a home base; serving as the starting and endpoints of marches and protests, hosting meetings, vigils, community BBQs as well as serving as the site of a then freshly erected memorial to Alfred adorned with hundreds of candles, flowers, drawings and notes left behind from mourners and neighborhood residents who came to pay their respects. The police eventually raided the area, fencing off an adjacent parking lot entrance, destroying the memorial to Alfred and even going as far as setting up a mobile watchtower in the Broadway shopping center, effectively shutting down the community’s weeks-long occupation of the space. In January, nearly four months after the fatal shooting of Alfred Olango, District Attorney Bonnie Dumais and the San Diego District Attorney’s Office ruled that they deemed the shooting as justified and that Richard Gonsalves would not face criminal charges stemming from the shooting. Perhaps even more sickeningly, to add insult to injury Dumais also used the opportunity at the same press conference to declare that the fatal officer-involved shootings of four other men in San Diego County: David Moya, Sergio Weick, Juan Carlos Fernandez and Trenton Lohman would also be ruled as justified. Though the DA has refused to charge Gonsalves of any criminal negligence in the shooting, the fight for justice in the Alfred Olango case is far from over.
Last Thursday, at a press conference on the steps of El Cajon City Hall commemorating the one anniversary of Alfred Olango’s passing; Rev. Shane Harris of NAN (The National Action Network),who has worked closely with the Olango family in the aftermath of Alfred’s death lamented the city’s blatant inability to take any tangible, concrete steps to improve the way the city and the police department deals with individuals suffering from mental health crises such that which Alfredo Olango was suffering prior to Gonsalves killing him. At the press conference, Rev. Harris also lamented the city’s failure to create an independent citizen’s review board in the aftermath of the shooting. Harris decried the city’s refusal to create an independent citizen’s review board where citizens could lodge complaints saying, “There’s no reason in the world why after a tragedy like this that you (the city of El Cajon) could not even create some kind of system or plan to deal with complaints coming in. It’s a sadness that you’re so far behind that people still have to come to the police department to complain to the police about the police. That’s a conflict of interest”. Rev. Cornelius Bowser, pastor of Charity Apostolic Church echoed similar frustration at the conference in the city’s inability to create an independent citizen’s review board saying, “In order to build trust and legitimacy within the El Cajon Police Department there must be a policy mandate for external and independent criminal investigation in case of police use of force resulting death, officer-involved shootings resulting in death or injury and in-custody deaths. There must also be policies that mandate the use of external and independent prosecutors in cases of use of force or shootings resulting in death. Rev. Bowser also went to say that the establishment of an independent citizens review board would, “demonstrate transparency to the community and would lead to mutual trust between the community and law enforcement”. Bowser concluded his statements challenging the city of El Cajon to prove its commitment to the community through action saying, “by asking for oversight of the police by committee here in El Cajon we are asking for a partnership. Does the city of El Cajon want a partnership with its community? Prove it by moving towards a community review board”.
Rev. Harris also did not mince words at the press conference taking aim at the city’s top leadership, specifically mayor Bill Wells and ECPD police chief Jeff Davis who both have done an immensely underwhelming job at taking steps to improve both police policy and protocol; as well as building mutual, genuine relationships with the communities and neighborhoods they serve in the city. Harris utilized his platform boldly proclaiming, “today we gather one year later to remind mayor Bill Wells and to send a thorough message to El Cajon police chief Jeff Davis that you thought this fight was over but, this fight is not over by a long shot, we came to call you out for your insufficiency and your poor leadership in the city of El Cajon”. Harris further called out and questioned both mayor Wells and chief Davis leadership abilities saying, “stop being poor leaders, step up, be bold and get a backbone. We are calling on you to get a backbone and be leaders and deal with officer Richard Gonsalves. If you say you are not a bad police department then you have to give rid of bad apples because bad apples corrupt other apples and make the bag look bad. So don’t tell us you’re good when you keep bad apples in the bag”. Rev. Harris also implored that the state California attorney general investigate the shooting, citing the lack of confidence in transparency from local authorities and prosecutors to properly investigate stating, ”we’re asking you to step in and investigate the killing of Alfred Olango on a state level because local prosecutors cannot investigate local police”. Harris concluded his remarks at the press conference stating, ”We want officer Richard Gonsalves fired and police chief Jeff Davis you can do that! There’s no reason in the world why a year later you’ve done absolutely nothing to address the killing of Alfred Olango. A year later we’re still here, I said we were going to be here a year ago and we’re still here and we’re continuing this workaround policing”. Harris then proceeded to lead a group of about 30 people comprised of family members, organizers, activists, and local neighborhood residents, briefly occupying the front offices of both El Cajon City Hall and the ECPD headquarters demanding the creation of an independent citizen’s review board as well the immediate the firing of Richard Gonsalves.
Shane Harris and NAN are not the only ones who have been working to bring change about in the city and within the ECPD. Last spring Apollo K. Olango, the younger brother of Alfred Olango founded the Alfred Olango Foundation; which advocates for increased training and improved policies to help de-escalate police encounters and potentially save lives within the community. Ultimately the goals of the foundation are to advocate for police training focused “on de-escalation techniques and preservation of life.” that could help prevent another tragedy. In a recent interview conducted by KPBS, Apollo Olango commented on the lack of the training police receive in regards to to dealing with individuals suffering mental episodes saying, “Someone that is dealing with a mental breakdown is not going to be able to respond to whatever orders you’re barking out, and with that understanding, there should be some kind of technique applied to de-escalates the particular situation”. Apollo Olango, as well as other representatives from the foundation, were also present at the press conference marking the one year anniversary since Alfred’s passing.
Even activists who have taken to streets every step of the way since last September expressed both a mix of frustration and cautious optimism upon reflecting on the events of the past year in the city. Jose, a local activist and resident of El Cajon who wished to be only identified by his first name reflected on what changes have taken place in the city, particularly the community stating, “One year after the murder of Alfred Olango somethings that have changed are the radical presence in a formerly quiet city that didn’t have a large presence at all or any radical presence of leftist, specifically people of color prior. So here on this one year anniversary we got to see those people who were affected, who were the grassroots organizers who are continuing to organize; and that ripple effect from one murder that touched the thirty plus people who remembered and are still out here, we’re reminiscing and building networks and connecting preparing for future struggles. While the state has still maintained this officer, he’s still serving in the police department, they still maintain a heavy presence around us to this very moment where we’re having this conversation. The tangible and the physical conditions that have changed are that they’re not dealing with a bunch of grassroots organizers, they’re dealing with people who have been through this, who are more prepared now and who are committed to this struggle for the long term”. When pressed about the future growth and continued action with the El Cajon community member Jose Cortes responded saying, “I think as far as the Alfred Olango case I wouldn’t expect it to just suddenly take a massive uptick in participation from the masses, but what I do think we can expect is that because of the foundation that was built through the uprising in El Cajon last year the community is more prepared for when this inevitably happens again and unfortunately state violence and police sanctioned murder will continue to happen. They’ve continued to happen in San Diego County and what we’ve seen is the ability for people who came in as just raw grassroots activists, first-timers being able to utilize their experience from here to other parts of the county and continue building parallel structures in El Cajon. I don’t think for this particular action things will necessarily grow, but I do think we’ll see a ripple effect of people who were moved by the what happened in this uprising, who continue to do work with the community and continue to build these parallel structures within that will inspire more people to join in and engage in these conversations”. With the day’s protest coming to a close, Cortes finished stressing the importance of unity saying, “Now, more than ever it’s imperative that we rise to the challenge that historically been placed upon us, as a community, as people of color, as the oppressed and the colonized in this country to join together and build solidarity amongst movements. To join a organization and take proactive measures to build these parallel structures. For anybody that has the love in their heart that motivates them to be out here and to continue the self-sacrifice that is necessary for this kind of work, the long days, the police suppression, the brutality and the hate coming from the state and grassroots fascists it’s imperative that we continue the struggle and we link together. because together is the only way we’re going to succeed”.
However, once the press conferences have concluded, once the media has packed up and left, and eventually even after the activists and grassroots organizers have returned home; the looming, suffocating reality begins to make itself painfully clear that unfortunately over the course of the past year not much has changed in the city of El Cajon. Officer Richard Gonsalves still remains on duty, gainfully employed by the ECPD. The city is still without an independent citizen’s review board for its police department, the ECPD has taken absolutely no tangible steps to amend and improve its policy for dealing with the mentally impaired and those suffering from mental episodes and as of now the Olango family is still being denied justice for the extrajudicial execution of Alfred at the hands of Richard Gonslaves. While this sadly is the current reality we face in the city of El Cajon, the fight for justice in the Alfred Olango case is not over however. According to the Los Angeles Times, a San Diego federal judge, U.S. District Judge Cynthia Bashant denied Gonsalves attempt to dismiss the lawsuit against him in the fatal shooting and ruled that a civil lawsuit brought against officer Gonsalves by Olango’s family could move forward. Judge Bashant ruled that a jury could find that Gonsalve’s conduct “shocked the conscience” because he was well aware going into the call that Alfred Olango was having a mental breakdown, that he had not threatened anyone and had not committed a crime. Judge Bashant also stated that it was, “sufficient to conclude that — at the time Officer Gonsalves shot and killed Mr. Olango — it was clearly established (law) that someone who is unarmed, is not a threat to anyone, and had not committed any crime has the right not to be shot and killed.”
Not all that surprisingly, the vile police culture within the ECPD has changed very little as well. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune. Officer Kristine Greer, the female officer who already once sued Gonsalves in 2015 for sexual harassment, which resulted in him being demoted from Sergeant to officer and the city settling for a grand total of $90,000 is once again suing the ECPD as well as the city for continued sexual harassment and intimidation following her litigation against Gonsalves and the ECPD. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, a complaint obtained by the paper filed earlier this month with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, yet another employee of the ECPD, El Cajon police Sgt. Anthony Kolombatovic sent numerous inappropriate messages to Greer. According to the complaint obtained by the Union-Tribune Greer “sent the texts to Chief Jeff Davis last month, after she received what she said was a retaliatory performance evaluation from her supervisor”, Sgt. Kolobatovic. Attorney Dan Gilleon who represents officer Greer said in statements published by the Union-Tribune saying, “The fact another supervisor was willing to send Officer Greer another nude photo and then punish her when she complained reveals just how deeply ingrained sexual harassment and retaliation is at the El Cajon Police Department. It’s clear that the city of El Cajon holds civil rights in low regard”. In the complaint lodged against Kolobatovic by officer Greer it said, “Among the new evidence discovered to date is that there is a long and sordid history at the ECPD of discrimination /harassment towards female personnel and an equally long and disturbing history of senior management within the ECPD ratifying (if not encouraging) such conduct”. The Union-Tribune also reported that after filing a complaint against Kolombatovic, Greer claimed that the harassment, became well-known across the law enforcement community and resulted in numerous cases of retaliation and further harassment from within the department. The complaint also said, “Despite knowing the abuse Officer Greer had faced, Sgt. Kolombatovic also knew that the El Cajon Police Department did not mind, and in fact, it tolerated and ratified sexual harassment and retaliation, especially when it was directed at Officer Greer”. At this point it’s clear to see that not only is the “good old boy” culture that I reported on last year is still very well and alive within the ECPD, to the point that it will turn on its own, but that the ECPD is not only complicit but supportive of sexual predators and deviants within its own department!
The ECPD knew all the way back in 2015 that Richard Gonsalves was a highly troubled officer and a serious problem both inside and outside of the department. Instead of doing the right thing, and taking the proper steps needed to protect its own employees and the public at large by firing Gonsalves, the ECPD instead decided to bend over backward to protect a sexual deviant and predator. Which ultimately ended up costing Alfred Olango his life. By every single account, it’s glaringly obvious that the ECPD is doing the exact same thing by harboring an officer like Kolobatovic as well! It’s becoming increasingly more and more evident that officers such as Gonsavles and Kolobatovic; who both either held or hold the title of sergeant in the department. Who held/hold positions of authority supervising other officers. Who are in charge of a team or patrol unit. Who relay orders from the police lieutenant and are among one of the first on the scene when a serious event takes place in the community, such as a major crime or other police emergencies: are not the exception to the norm, they are the norm within the department. And the ECPD’s refusal to hold either one accountable is a glaring indictment of their complicity in the disgusting behavior and misconduct which has run rampant inside the ECPD from top to bottom.
Whatever small minute victories aside the community can claim in the quest for accountability and justice over the past year, it still does not excuse nor makeup for the blatant display of incompetence and complete disregard for transparency and accountability on the behalf of the city leadership in El Cajon and the ECPD. The city of El Cajon and the police department have taken no substantive steps whatsoever to ensure its citizens that only the most skilled and competent individuals will be allowed to serve in the city’s police force. In fact, if anything the city and the ECPD have by their own actions (or lack thereof) have shown that without a shadow of a doubt that they would rather: fight at all costs to defend sexual deviants who have not only cost them tens of thousands of dollars, who prey upon those within its own department and are even killers who have needlessly taken the life of an innocent man and continue to hide and lurk within their ranks than admit that they were wrong and made a grave mistake retaining officers such as Gonsalves and all others like him on the force. As a resident of the city of El Cajon, I’ll admit I find it difficult to contain my anger and frustration with the city and the ECPD. I’ve expressed this sentiment before which is more alive than ever within my own conscious and the hearts and minds of thousands of others who reside in El Cajon and the greater San Diego area. It is an understatement to say that we’re mad! we’re angry! we’re upset! and we’re disillusioned with a system and its gatekeepers who continue to make a mockery of justice and continue to perpetuate a system that continues to put our lives and the safety of others who reside within the community in danger in defense of negligent, abusive, predatory cops who have proven themselves to be a menace both inside and outside the department!
I’ve said this once, I’ve said it before. I’ve probably said it well over a hundred times over the course of the past year! I’ve written, I’ve tweeted, I’ve Instagrammed, I’ve called, I’ve petitioned, I’ve rallied, I’ve marched all over San Diego County and done everything else in between to bring attention to this atrocity. Yet our cries and demands for justice, reform and accountability continue to fall on deaf ears and treated with callous, blatant disregard from the city establishment and the ECPD. The ECPD has at the very least (and that’s being conservative) one sexual predator cop on the payroll. Plain and simple. Richard Gonsalves has sexually harassed other female officers multiple times, been sued multiple times for that harassment and on top of all that is a stone-cold killer as well. These are the kind of people the city of El Cajon and its police department have not only tasked with “upholding the law” here in our city but continues to defiantly retain and harbor in spite of their known, dangerous histories! These are kind of individuals who stalk our streets, roam our community and come in contact with our mothers, sisters, nieces, and daughters. And the establishment stands behind them and other people just like them one hundred percent, bending over backward to protect these vile individuals. Because in their eyes, the eyes of Chief Davis and the ECPD there is no problem, it’s just business as usual. Abusing power and authority is business as usual. Harassing women is business as usual. Killing Black and Brown people without the slightest fear of punishment or consequence is business as usual! East County deserves better, the people of El Cajon deserve better, the Olango family deserves better and Alfred Olango deserved better! Richard Gonsalves is not just one ‘bad apple’. And other cops like him are not just a few outlier cases of ‘bad apples’ either. Richard Gonsalves and other cops like him are not isolated ‘bad apples’, they are the vile fruit of a poisonous crop harvested from a toxic system rotten to core; which not only continues to empower and protect like-minded individuals but also serve as a safe haven and bastion which, continues to attract even more people with same disgusting views, attitudes and tendencies. We cannot continue to pretend that police departments all across the country only have a few ‘bad apples’ when they proceed to protect and even celebrate officers that are absolutely rotten to their core. One year later not much is certain but one thing is and that is the fact that the community of El Cajon is going to continue this make this cop and the ECPD’s life miserable until the city does what’s right: firing Richard Gonsalves and bringing this rouge, degenerate, killer cop to justice and all others who continue to abuse their authority both inside and out of the ECPD!! One year later we still won’t stop!! We won’t stop fighting for justice for Alfred Olango!!
Photos & video courtesy: Roberto Camacho
Photo of Richard Gonsalves courtesy: ABC 10 News