EL CAJON, Calif. — Relatives and supporters of a Ugandan refugee fatally shot by a police officer during a confrontation at an El Cajon strip mall decried the killing Thursday as unwarranted and racially motivated while vowing to fight for justice and calling on like-minded people to protest the death peacefully.
“We do believe that Alfred Olango was unjustly killed,” the Rev. Shane Harris, president of the National Action Network-San Diego, said during a news conference at the civil-rights agency’s Midway-area offices. “We do believe that the officer who shot him five times did this with misconduct, and that is why we are here today.”
Olango, 38, was mortally wounded during a confrontation with police outside a strip mall restaurant near the intersection of Interstate 8 and state Route 67 Tuesday afternoon. Demonstrators contend that the officer who shot him was unduly quick to open fire because Olango was black.
One witness told reporters Olango — who was unarmed — had his hands raised when shots rang out, and another indicated he may have suffered a seizure. However, police said Olango was uncooperative, had repeatedly refused to remove his hand from his pocket, assumed “what appeared to be a shooting stance,” and pointed an object that turned out to be an electronic smoking device at one of the officers.
The events that led to the fatal confrontation began when officers were dispatched to investigate a report of a pedestrian behaving erratically and walking in traffic in a commercial district a few blocks north of El Cajon Valley High School.
Patrol personnel contacted the man, later identified as Olango, in a parking lot in the 700 block of Broadway, police Capt. Frank LaHaye said.
Moments later, one of the officers shot Olango with an electric stun gun, and the other opened fire with his service gun. Witnesses reported hearing about five gunshots.
During Thursday afternoon’s briefing, Olango’s mother, Pamela Benge, told news crews her son was distraught at the time of the shooting due to the death of a close friend — disputing reports that he was mentally unstable.
“He was not mental — he had a mental breakdown,” she said.
Benge tearfully praised Olango as a decent son and father who simply needed help and kindness at the time of the deadly confrontation with police.
“My son (was) a good, loving young man, only 38 years old,” she said. “I wanted his future to be longer than that. I wanted him to enjoy his daughter.”
The grieving mother noted that her family had come to the United States 25 years ago to escape armed conflict in their homeland.
“We have come from a war zone,” she said. “We wanted protection. That’s why we’re here. … There are millions of refugees that are here, just searching for a better place. … I thought a lovely nice country like this would protect us, we just need protection, that’s all. My son … he (didn’t) kill anybody.”
Olango’s ex-girlfriend of three years, Bianca Oliva, told FOX 5 she believes justice needs to be served for Olango, who “was a wonderful father to his daughters.”
“His smile would light up the whole room. He would bring everybody together…he was an awesome person. Loved to just enjoy life, go to the beach,” Oliva said.
She said she hopes the video will be released so the community of El Cajon can gain some answers.
The fatal shooting prompted angry protests almost immediately. Shouting, chanting crowds came together that afternoon and continued into the night at the spot where the deadly encounter played out in a commercial district a few blocks north of El Cajon Valley High School.
On Wednesday, demonstrations resumed outside El Cajon police headquarters. In the early afternoon, the boisterous throng marched through the city, at times blocking streets and freeway ramps while facing off with rows of officers in riot gear. The disruptions prompted a temporary closure of nearby Parkway Plaza mall.
During a news conference the day after the shooting, El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells said he was “completely fine” with peaceful protests but concerned about the potential for the protests to turn destructive.
“I see what’s happening all over the country,” Wells said. “Of course I’m worried. … I don’t expect anything bad to happen, but I certainly don’t want to be caught unaware.”
A still photo lifted from witness video that showed a crouching man holding something at face level as two officers apparently trained weapons on him was released hours after the shooting. Protesters criticized police for releasing one photo, instead of the entire video.
Wells said he had seen the full video and was deeply affected by it but was holding off on any judgments.
“I saw a man who was distraught, a man who was acting in ways that looked like he was in great pain,” Wells said. “And I saw him get gunned down and killed, and it broke my heart.”
The officers, who had more than 20 years of law enforcement experience, were placed on administrative leave, per protocol. Police have promised a thorough and transparent multi-agency investigation. Protesters called for a federal investigation.
Critics have questioned why personnel with special training to deal with the mentally ill were not dispatched after police received a report that Olango was behaving erratically and walking in traffic. A distraught woman who identified herself as Olango’s sister could be heard just after he was shot asking why officers shot her brother after she called for help and told police he was troubled.
Police later said a psychiatric emergency-response team clinician was on another call at the time.
Authorities disputed claims that bystanders’ cellphones were taken at the scene. Only one was voluntarily turned over.
According to friends, Olango was born in Kampala, Uganda, as one of nine children. His mother and siblings emigrated to New York as refugees in 1991, apparently because his father — who worked for the late Ugandan President Idi Amin — made threats of violence against them.
The family eventually moved to Southern California, and Olango attended San Diego High School for a time before dropping out, though he later earned a GED. According to his Facebook page, he attended San Diego Mesa College and worked at a Hooters restaurant.
In 2002, an immigration judge ordered Olango deported following his conviction for transporting and selling narcotics, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The following year, after repeated efforts by ICE to obtain a travel document from the Ugandan government to carry out Olango’s deportation proved unsuccessful, Olango was discharged from ICE custody. His release was mandated by a Supreme Court ruling that precludes the agency from holding foreign nationals with final orders of removal for more than six months if their actual deportation cannot occur within the “reasonably foreseeable future.”
ICE then placed Olango under an order of supervision, directing him to report to the agency on a regular basis.
In 2009, he was returned to ICE custody after serving a prison term for a conviction on a firearms charge in Colorado. At that point, the federal agency renewed its efforts to obtain a travel document from the Ugandan government. Once again the attempts were futile, leading to Olango’s re-release from ICE custody on an order of supervision.
Until February 2015, Olango reported in to the agency as required. However, he failed to appear for an in-person appointment that month and had not been encountered by the agency since, according to ICE.