De-escalation. It’s the word connected to the most sensible path forward from the ugly place that police shootings of black citizens have brought us to in this country. Last week it hit home, hard. The list of locales where unnecessary killings have made national headlines has expanded to include our backyard, with El Cajon joining Ferguson, Tulsa, Charlotte and too many others cities where lives have been abruptly and questionably ended by men and women in uniform.
We can study the past, live in the moment and plan for the future. But in moving forward, the plan to get out of this mess has to begin with a top-to-bottom call for institutional de-escalation of these powder keg scenarios.
That means training police officers to defuse situations rather than escalate them.
“It’s the direction law enforcement needs to go,” former San Diego Police Chief Bill Lansdowne told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “We need to spend more time on when to shoot as opposed to just how to shoot.”
Last week, Alfred Olango’s sister called the police seeking aid for her brother, who was demonstrating bizarre behavior in the streets of El Cajon.
The Ugandan refugee, who has not been reported to have committed any crime, was observed acting erratically, walking in and out of traffic. Olango’s mother has said her son was despondent over the recent death of his best friend.
In a more perfect world the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team would not have been busy that day. But the PERT team was on another call, so two officers arrived on the scene. One cop, Richard Gonsalves, could be seen on surveillance video approaching Olango with his gun drawn. Olango appeared to attempt to evade the officer and wasn’t responding to Gonsalves’ orders. From close proximity to Gonsalves, Olango pulled an object from his pocket that turned out to be a vape device. Law enforcement officials said Olango assumed a “shooter’s stance,” and Gonsalves instantaneously fired four bullets at him.
Kudos that the whole surveillance video of the incident was released to the public on Friday. Soon, an investigation will commence, fingers will be pointed, sides will be taken and—if matters stand to form—San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis will find no criminal liability in this officer-involved shooting, as has been the case in more than 150 similar investigations by the DA since 2005.
Meanwhile, race relations continue to steam up inside the cultural pressure cooker. By and large, black and minority communities feel unduly targeted by law enforcement. You can agree or disagree on whether that notion is a reality—but you can’t dispute that the perception exists, and that at the very least it calls for all-around introspection and programatic change.
“Responding officers should not have had their weapons drawn as Mr. Olango was not presenting a danger to others,” said Dr. Frank Placone-Willey, a faith leader from Santee with the San Diego Organizing Project, which is affilated with the national non-profit People Improving Communties through Organizing (PICO).
“The officers should have taken steps to de-escalate the situation,” he added at a recent local rally. “Its doubtful police would have taken such an aggressive stance if the victim was white...Headlines of African American victims of police killings are too innumerous to name. As angels of consolation, faith leaders are united in our calls for an end of police violence.”
Detractors scoff at the idea of asking police officers to step back and consider de-escalating encounters, and deny that implicit bias exists. Trolls frown on the notion of what they call “hug-a-thug” and say it only leads to the police officers getting shot or injured.
Sigh. Some people are firmly in a state of disbelief about race relations. It’s partly a generational thing but it’s re-emerged in public as a national issue, and it’s thoroughly disheartening to see San Diego County take its turn on CNN.
Don’t forget that every time an unarmed black man is killed by police in a different U.S. city that death feeds the fires of unrest on several levels. The street protests are local pain; the anguish brought on by the collective parade of incidents is universal in building dismay and anger. Left unattended and unabated, a tipping point will occur.