Police ignore own mental health policies in killing of Alfred Olango

The police have released cell phone and surveillance footage of the Alfred Olango shooting by El Cajon, CA police. It’s obviously disturbing, but CNN is hosting it here.

The video also has a very good picture of what Olango was holding- it looks pretty much like what I described in my last post.

From CNN video.
From CNN video.

Police say their job is very hard and dangerous. It’s not the most dangerous occupation, and these shootings continue to show the very low expectations society and the justice system have for police officers.

If I was telling you that we were going to help someone who’s having some mental health trouble, when we arrived you would be prepared for certain behavior. You might expect that this person may be agitated, not want to be approached, and would not respond well to escalation. You would know that this would not be a typical conversation.

In the death of Alfred Olango, the police were called on a 5150. That’s the same thing as me briefing you in the above scenario. It’s a mental health call. Quoting Christopher Rice-Wilson:

“The PERT Team [Psychiatric Emergency Response Teams] should have been the ones responding to this. The police were aware of his mental illness: this was a 5150 call and they should have dispatched officers trained to deal with this and de-escalate the situation. El Cajon police didn’t do this; they didn’t follow their own policy.” (SD Reader, 9/28, “Police killing of Alfred Olango protested”)

This is the issue with the argument that bodycams would have saved Alfred Olango’s life. El Cajon PD has policies about mental health. They didn’t follow them, barged right into a delicate situation, and an unarmed black man is now dead. If bodycams become policy, just like the PERT Team, why do people expect that they will be used as needed? Going back to low expectations, the police rarely are rebuked for not following their own protocol. Who’s going to force them?

Protestors in El Cajon have been met with force, including bean bag rounds (video of someone hit by one here). From my own vantage point, with privilege, I can’t fully appreciate how it is to be a person of color in America, let alone a protestor of color. But as someone with a mental illness, and with friends who have very serious conditions, the Alfred Olango shooting is proof that rights on paper and in reality can be radically different.

Analysis of police press release about Alfred Olango raises serious questions (updated)

The police in El Cajon have released, and then updated, a press release about the shooting of Alfred Olango.

Police have video of the incident taken from a bystander, which they say backs up their account, but refuse to release the full video. This is the still that we have to go on.

We know that Olango did not have a gun or a Taser. The press release states the exact objects Olango had were a Smok TVF4 MINI attached to a Pioneer4You battery box.

The first item sounds like the one pictured on the left, as it is described as “all silver.”

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Pioneer boxes look something like this:

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The device in total is 7″ by 2.25″ by 1″. For a comparison, a Glock 17 is about 8″ by 5.5″ by 1.2″. If the Smok was all silver as shown above, it wouldn’t resemble a gun from any distance, let alone the few feet as shown in the picture. Given that vape devices are commonplace, police should be expected to distinguish between smoking equipment, firearms, and Tasers. That’s an expectation that was not met here.

Other notes:

Shooting was at 2:11, with weather in El Cajon being very hot and bright. So no “it was dark to hard to determine” defense like in the Fridoon Nehad case, where a non-weapon was misidentified also. As the still shows, police saw the device from multiple angles.

Releasing the still seems to be a way of forming a narrative without backing it up in full. You would assume that this single frame, taken out of context, makes the police account look most likely. However, you don’t have to defend police conduct as it actually looked in real-time, nor any police methods used prior to the shooting.

The police deflect why there was not a Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT) personnel at this scene at the bottom of the updated press release.

The El Cajon Police Department does have an agreement with Community Research Foundation / PERT which allows certified licensed clinicians to partner with police officers in the field in order to provide direct support for mental health calls.  On 9/27/16, during the hours of this incident, there was a PERT clinician with a police officer.  At the specific time of this incident, that team was on a different radio call that was also PERT related.  They were not immediately available.

(update: the Associated Press reports it took over an hour for police to respond and one minute to kill Olango. If it took that long, the “not immediately available” excuse doesn’t hold up. This was not a rush, in-the-moment job.

Additionally, someone allegedly so dangerous that police had to quickly kill when on the scene managed to not hurt anyone in the hour before. The person Olango was most likely to hurt was himself, given his state and the presence of traffic.)

This was a 5150 call, in which authorities come to take someone to involuntary psychiatric hold. Given that the call was about mental illness (not a call about crime or a possible criminal), having no special preparation is concerning. Though 5150s can be a good thing in the long run for patient health (I know many people who have had at least one called), this incident makes me less likely to call one in.

As someone who provided information about mental illness to those who came into contact with people with mental health problems, or were otherwise difficult to help, I’m not surprised. The department likely trumpets this local relationship in promotional materials,  yet when people’s lives are on the line, they are somehow unavailable. This is a similar issue we’ve seen so far with  bodycams- often there, but unavailable or otherwise unaccessible.

The release says this

At this time, the officer with the electronic control device discharged his weapon.  Simultaneously, the officer with the firearm discharged his weapon several times, striking the subject.

Why, if the suspect is considered such that one officer has their Taser (rather than pistol) ready, would the two stages not be sequential. Non-lethal methods would not have worked in the death of Alfred Olango, because lethal means were used at the same time. Would Olango have survived if only the Taser been used? Much more likely.

In conclusion, large protests in El Cajon have been held in the aftermath of Olango’s death. Given the official story as presented thus far, I find considerable issue with police conduct before the shooting, the misidentification of the object held by Olango, the use of lethal force before less-lethal means were tried, and the release of a single still image without context, so to prejudice the public.

Journalism, propaganda, and the police

“Reporters are faced with the daily choice of painstakingly researching stories or writing whatever people tell them. Both approaches pay the same.” – Scott Adams 

Since a very young age (like the age of eight), I have considered myself a journalist. I made classroom newspapers in fourth grade, created the Pine Lane Linguist in seventh grade by roping in some friends and forcing Microsoft Word to cooperate with my plans. My senior project in high school was to create a news magazine, The Legionnaire, which was a bunch of really smart people I met in summer programs providing copy to something that’s like The Economist, but by a diverse cast of young people. And I’ve maintained this blog for over three years.

So I’ve long since internalized the norms of journalism, as taught to us in handbooks and All The President’s Men. Get the facts. Weigh the sources. Don’t get suckered. And for the love of god, don’t become a tool of outside forces.Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 12.07.45 AM

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 12.07.51 AMThe body-cam footage of Ray Tensing shooting Sam Dubose once- clearly and intentionally- in the head, is horrifying. If you do want to see it, here’s The Stranger with the best short breakdown of what happened. What has happened since shows how the rest of society bails out the police when it shouldn’t.

A claim repeated over and over in every media story was that Tensing was dragged by the car prior to the shooting. This despite the fact that early on it was established that there was a body-cam recording of the traffic stop, and early reactions from people involved in the case were that the video was very, very bad. The only reason these media outlets reported this initial sequence of events was because Tensing and another officer, Eric Wiebel, said it was what happened. Dubose wasn’t available for comment on the story because he was shot once in the head at point-blank range.

This is the norm, both in cases where the victim was killed or when they are still alive and have their own account. The first narrative is the police narrative, which sinks into the consciousness. A later correction to “oh, the main claims by the officers were nonsense” doesn’t erase the mark set. How many people have you talked to that know about some current event but not the newest developments? Huge numbers of people still think Tensing was dragged by Dubose, prompting the shooting. It can never be fully cleansed from people’s minds.

Because of this acceptance of police testimony, in cases of rival narratives we often doubt the victim. There is a built in sense that even if they did nothing wrong, they have a criminal nature. A recurring tactic is to leak information about a victim’s drug history, asking the media to speculate from there. This happened (and its importance later debunked) with Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin, using three high-profile examples. These cases become referendum on the behavior of those who have been beaten or killed- something the media is willingly complicit in. I’m pretty tired of stories with leading questions as their title. Nowhere near the amount of speculation is made about police officers, and their lives are never picked over the in the same crass manner.

Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 1.10.47 AM

Shaun King is a nice source of sanity- his Twitter account is a great resource for those of us who are passionate activists, but also loyal to getting things right in a particular, ethical way. Journalists should always factor in the one huge, monumental elephant in the room. If an unarmed person is killed by the police, the officer(s) involved, and their bosses have every reason in the world to lie. Maybe the police are a good source of information about the number of arrests made at a drunk driving checkpoint. But often they have their careers at stake.

Treating the police and the justice system as an rock-solid authoritative source is dangerous, and leads to the current fiasco with Dubose. A guy selling you his used car off of Craigslist would like you to take his story at face value. However, it would be more sensible to go to a third-party mechanic and ask their opinion. A third-party can evaluate the car and establish facts, independent of the stakes involved.

Journalists are supposed to be the mechanic, not a booster of the story the buyer wants to spin.

In the days of the original muckrakers, journalism was a force for liberation and taking down the powerful. It spoke for those who are not represented in the rest of society. Writing is a weapon, which can be used for good or evil.

#WhoIsBurningBlackChurches? Cultural erasure in America

The black church has been a nexus of power and hope for centuries. Urban congregations were the basis of the Civil Rights Movement; in 1963 in Birmingham, no matter how violent and chaotic it got, the 16th Street Baptist Church was home base where nonviolent protestors marched, were scattered and arrested, and came back to again and again. Shortly after the Campaign, the whole church was dynamited by KKK members, killing four girls. The symbol of black resistance was destroyed, part of a campaign of white supremacist terror.

The rubble of 16th Street Baptist. September, 1963
The rubble of 16th Street Baptist. September, 1963

Not only was the sanctuary of the church desecrated by the massacre of nine people in Charleston, this open wound has been salted by a string of church fires. As of writing, the number of fires is eight, with three confirmed arsons and four without a cause yet.

The lack of interest by many media outlets in the story spawned the hashtag #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches. The answer is both “we have no idea” and “we have a very good idea”. Who specifically? Investigations are ongoing. Who generally? White domestic terrorists, the sort that have dominated the history of terrorism in America. While Islamic extremism has been the dominant focus in America for the past two decades, outside of September 11th, 2001, domestic terrorism by racist and “patriot” extremists has always been a more relevant threat- since 9/11 almost twice as many people in the US have died from right-wing attacks than by Islamic radicals. The 1990s had the Oklahoma City Bombing, which was the deadliest action before 9/11. Going back far into the past, America was defined by lynch mobs, church bombings, slave patrols, etc. Beware media stories that call this some kind of anomaly. Given the past, and American society’s lack of interest in confronting systemic racism, we should not be surprised that black institutions are defiled and destroyed.

The question “who is burning black churches?” reveals that the War on Terror has never directed resources into confronting the dark heart of domestic terror. The Obama administration and Congress seems to be more interested in bombing peasants in Yemen than in churches being destroyed in several Southern states. No big effort has emerged to systematically protect churches and the black communities that they reside in. As with many social problems, the oppressed groups are told to deal with it on their own.

At the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly last week, Dr. Cornel West stated that if all this violence was matched in the way that white establishments do, there would be no peace. Violence against black America happens so often that it would be a continuous civil war. What makes church burnings like this series strange is that few, if any comparable actions are taken against white-led churches or other institutions. When property is destroyed in racial conflict, like the CVS in Baltimore, there is a media obsession with it. Several historic churches, with great cultural and social importance, get nowhere near the same coverage- simply because the group that committed the crime and group who suffered it were different than they were in Baltimore.

I was born in 1990, about a full generation after the end of the capitalized Civil Rights Movement. Church attacks were taught to me as historical, emblematic of a hostile, racist society that no longer exists. But there is no separate, post-racial era. This is just a modified version of Jim Crow. Same inequality, same terrorism.

Mourning Peshawar

Signs and candles lie outside Geisel Library on UCSD campus
Signs and candles lie outside Geisel Library on UCSD campus

UCSD students held a vigil Wednesday as people around the world mourn the massacre of children at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Whatever your politics, it should be a common point that the most innocent and defenseless are off-limits in any conflict. When children are reduced to a statement of brutal conviction, all justice and humanity is destroyed.

Ferguson: will This Time Be Different?

If you follow a good media Twitter like Danny Wicentowski you’ll know that things have escalated since the death of Michael Brown in St. Louis. Protests have intensified, as people feel that the institutions in this crime are going to do their historical dance of talk but no action.

Alderman Antonio French has been arrested, as have several journalists. Once again we see police that are increasingly indistinguishable from military units. What is depressing to think of is how any abuse doled out by these riot police will be subject to the same inadequate review and regulation as the shooting of Brown.

I have great, deep faith of activists and those that want to see justice done, but this is against the inertia of so many past crimes that have gone unpunished. One can work, and hope that This Time Will Be Different.

We can at least prepare our children for the future

I’ve now maintained a Facebook account for over six years. In that time, I’ve seen important events unfold in my news feed- the Virginia Tech massacre, the campaign and election of Barack Obama, revolutions in Iran, Egypt, and Syria. Many events have had scattered interest. Others bring out those primordial emotions that we mostly keep well-hidden.

At no point in those six years did Facebook become unbearable to visit; however, yesterday went far beyond my tolerance. The recent past yields misery, both in the United States and in relative isolation thousands of miles away. Yet as the early afternoon brought the events out of Newton, the anger was both fierce and widely spread. Normally apolitical people began posting their strong reactions. Clashes between friends mixed with communal mourning.

Continue reading “We can at least prepare our children for the future”