Shooting of mentally ill man justified, rules district attorney - Sovereign Health Group
Articles / Blog
01-17-17 Category: Mental Health

On Jan. 9, 2017, the El Cajon district attorney’s (DA) office announced that the officer who fatally shot Alfred Okwera Olango on Sept. 27, 2016, ­ an unarmed African-American man described by family as mentally ill, was justified and won’t face criminal charges.

This came after Olango’s sister called the police to protect her “mentally unstable” brother from himself by requesting a transport to a local acute psychiatric facility.

Police shootings in the U.S.

The Washington Post keeps a running interactive graphic tallying police shooting deaths. According to the latest numbers in 2016:

  • 138 people were shot and killed by the police in California.
  • 31 people killed by police were mentally ill.
  • 21 police shooting deaths were of Africans or African-Americans.
  • Five people who were killed by police fire were black people with a history of mental illness.

As published by the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, “A study discovered 92 percent of patrol officers to have had at least one encounter with a mentally ill person in the past month, and six such encounters averaging every month.”

Olango’s death: The police-version of events

San Diego police officer Richard Gonsalves has been cleared by the DA because they say “Gonsalves’ use of deadly force was reasonable” and the law accounts for split-second decisions in rapidly evolving situations, according to San Diego District Attorney Bonnie M. Dumanis. She wrote a 12-page letter to the El Cajon Police Chief detailing the incident as well as the determination.

The report echoes witness and dispatch accounts, as well as Olando’s sister’s reiteration of the situation:

  • Sister Lucy called 911 three times and waited for an hour and six minutes for help
  • Lucy stated three times that her brother was mentally unstable but did not suffer from any mental illness
  • Lucy initially affirmed that her brother did not have any weapons
  • Dispatch told officers they would be looking for a “5150 subject” walking through traffic; 5150 is a law enforcement code signifying an individual may be mentally ill and in need of involuntary commitment
  • Olango had kept his hand in his right pocket, was told to put his hands up by police, and did not; and suddenly pulled his hand out of his pocket brandishing an e-cigarette that looked to be in the shape of a gun

The heart-broken family regrets calling police

“I had called the police to help Olango, not shoot him multiple times.” Those were woeful cries heard from Olango’s sister shortly after the shots were fired, in a live video recording of the incident.

Olango’s family has said he had a mental breakdown after the death of a close friend. “The attorney representing Lucy Olango said his client regrets calling 911 for help the day her brother [was shot by police].”

The district attorney’s letter says upon the third call by Olango’s sister to police, Lucy asked if she should be calling another number. The dispatched demurred and said at that time, there were a few other local emergencies and reassured help would be coming.

In fact, there is an enforcement team that responds to acute mental emergencies. Although the team is reached through a nonemergency line, loved ones can perhaps request that division when calling 911. So who will protect and serve the mentally disturbed?

Crisis Intervention in Southern California

Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), or Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT) training as it’s dubbed in some counties, is a way to de-escalate situations like that which resulted in Alfred Olongo’s death.

“[Crisis Intervention-trained] officers have reduced the re-arrest rate for the mentally ill by 58 percent. CIT also saves money. The average annual cost to incarcerate a mentally ill inmate in Detroit is $30,000; it costs a third of that to divert the individual to a mental health treatment facility.

“A CIT-trained officer learns how to appear calm, maintain limited eye contact, retain a neutral facial expression, never touch or gesture and, above all, never turn his or her back on a suspect.”

According to the California Institute for Behavioral Health Services’ latest report, San Diego County does fall above statewide averages for crisis intervention training.

The report observes:

  • 30-40 percent of first responders are CIT certified
  • CIT is a requirement for incoming peace officers
  • San Diego counties offer one and three-day training sessions; each day is equivalent to 8 hours training
  • CIT training is provided to officers after spending time in the field
  • San Diego offers 10-12 training sessions per year
  • Trainings do not follow the original CIT Memphis Model, rather the PERT model, wherein “PERT pairs licensed mental health clinicians with uniformed law enforcement officers/deputies. Clinicians work out of individual law enforcement divisions and respond in the field with their law enforcement partners,” on non-emergency calls

Despite all this, there is still scope for improvement. There is a need for more hands-on learning approaches such as lectures, speaker panels and video clips.

Perhaps as awareness grows with these tragic events, San Diego and other counties will train dispatch to ask if CIT or PERT teams are needed so loved ones don’t have to wait an hour for help or worry that they have made the wrong call.

Address problems resulting from trauma

Sovereign Health is a trustworthy and trauma-informed nationwide behavioral health treatment provider that offers personalized recovery for mental health issues in all its manifestations: addictions, eating disorders and mental disturbances. Call our 24/7 helpline for details.

About the author

Kristin Currin-Sheehan is a Sovereign Health writer and her intriguing storytelling has been featured with Sovereign Health, KPBS TV/FM, FOX5 News in San Diego and NPR. Her illustrative and relatable approach to digital and broadcast news bridges businesses and consumers, news and community. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author at news@sovhealth.com.

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