A black man, Alfred Olango, was killed by a police officer on Tuesday in El Cajon, CA. It’s the first major city to the east of San Diego, about 20-25 minutes by car from where I live.
Not much is known for sure, other than that the dead man was “acting erratic.” A woman identified as his sister said he had mental health issues. According to the NBC report, the police “did not release details on the specific threat he presented to officers.” There is also contention about whether the police confiscated cell phones of bystanders who may have had video of the incident. They likely did, given how often the police aim to suppress video that may run counter to police testimony. There’s also little reason to give police the benefit of the doubt. Look no further than the recent allegations of gun planting in Charlotte and a much clearer case of planting in 2011 in St. Louis.
The killing of a mentally ill man echoes last year’s killing of Fridoon Nehad, which involved a long fight to release surveillance footage of the incident. The details I covered in December 2015 here. A big similarity in these cases is the difference between being erratic and being dangerous. Erratic behavior has many sources- in Olango’s case it looks like a seizure is the reason. A variety of disorders like bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia, and some types of depression can also make individuals confused and incapable of responding to police demands- which are often given loudly, on top of one another, and with a very small time window for compliance. At my low point in 2012 when my mental health was worst, I could have easily been described as erratic. And I now realize that can put my life at risk, in a way never before considered.
Police protocol in these cases is infested with ableism. It assumes a perfectly compliant, quick, enthusiastic response to police orders. If someone fails on any of these counts, their life can be in danger. Sometimes the cops will just open fire before any real attempt at less-lethal options- Fridoon Nehad was shot by an officer who spent about 25 seconds from parking his car to killing him. But consider the case of Charles Kinsey, a black man shot for trying to help a young autistic man in his care, Arnaldo Rios. Kinsey served a perfectly compliant surrogate for someone who was unable to do so, and yet police did open fire on Rios, missing and hitting Kinsey instead. The resulting trauma for Rios has been awful, with him not getting proper therapy. But many people with mental or development disorders don’t survive their encounters with police. Robert Ethan Saylor, who had Down’s Syndrome, was tackled and asphyxiated over a dispute about a movie ticket. Again, defensive behavior or tics was interpreted as a threat. People who are deaf or hard of hearing routinely suffer from violence, since a basic assumption is that all people can hear instructions. And of course, many people don’t speak English, so being yelled at in the foreign language is just confusing and may lead to so-called ‘erratic’ actions. Police always filter civilian behavior through a lens of perfect ability. That is, those who are not fully able and somehow lesser and more likely to be targets of violence. The most vulnerable sections of the population are threatened by the institutions that in theory should protect and serve them.
These issues would be much less prevalent if American police really committed to deescalation, and had proper understanding of the symptoms and nature of mental illness. I was even part of a county program in 2014 that helped explain mental illness and stigma to schools, crisis lines, and yes, police departments. But it’s not working- street-level cops still can’t process disability at any level. The existence of the ADA, and the sense that people with mental and physical disabilities have rights has no place among the police.
The true answer, to help make sure there is never another Alfred Olango, is community policing. Community members and organizations band together to help keep things safe, using their pre-existing trust to make bonds that the police will never be able to. And a community effort means more local knowledge, including those who live with mental or developmental disabilities. Communities also don’t want gun homicides and violence- they have the most vested interest in deescalation. Restorative justice can change mindsets in a way mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline cannot.
Alfred Olango is not the first, not in this country or this county. But he is a reminder that police departments have the most sinister and deadly ableism one can imagine.
San Diego will participate in 022, the October 22nd National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation. Event details are on Facebook here. The national event website is here.