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Unarmed black man killed by police near San Diego had twice been ordered deported

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 9/29/2016 Tony Perry
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EL CAJON, Calif. — A Ugandan refugee fatally shot by police in El Cajon, Calif., on Tuesday had twice been ordered by an immigration judge to be deported because of criminal convictions but was allowed to remain in the United States when Uganda refused to accept him, officials said Thursday.

Alfred Olango, 38, arrived in the United States as a refugee with his family in 1991, according to a statement released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

An immigration judge ordered him deported in 2002 after his conviction for transporting and selling drugs. An immigration judge renewed that order in 2009, when Olango left prison after serving a sentence for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

In both instances, Uganda refused to issue travel documents that would have permitted Olango to return to his homeland, according to a statement issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Olango and his family had fled Uganda for fear of becoming victims of political violence, according to court documents.

The immigration system was required to release Olango from custody in compliance with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that immigrants ordered deported cannot be held in custody indefinitely if their native country refuses to allow them to return, officials said.

A man carries a sign as demonstrators assemble in El Cajon, a suburb of San Diego, on Sept. 28 in protest of the police shooting the night before of an unarmed black man, Alfred Olango. © Bill Wechter/AFP/Getty Images A man carries a sign as demonstrators assemble in El Cajon, a suburb of San Diego, on Sept. 28 in protest of the police shooting the night before of an unarmed black man, Alfred Olango.

After being released from federal custody, Olango was ordered to appear regularly before officials of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He followed that requirement for several years but stopped reporting in February 2015 and “had not been encountered by the agency since,” according to the statement.

On Tuesday afternoon, two El Cajon officers confronted Olango in a strip mall parking lot after police received a call from his sister saying that he was acting erratically. According to police, Olango refused their commands and reached into his pocket for a metallic-looking object and then assumed a “shooting stance,” aiming the device at an officer.

That officer fired his service weapon, fatally striking Olango. The other officer fired a Taser to merely disable him.

His sister watched in horror as her brother was shot.

“I told the police – please don’t shoot him, he’s sick, he’s mentally sick,” she told reporters later. “… I didn’t call the officers to come and kill my brother in front of me.”

Olango’s sister declined Wednesday to be interviewed by police.

Olango, who worked as a cook at a Hooters restaurant, had had several run-ins with local police, including allegations of drunken driving and domestic violence.

Olango’s tangled immigration and criminal background has added a level of complexity to the potential political fallout from his shooting. Olango’s supporters say his immigration status has no bearing on the shooting and is an attempt by officials to distract the public from the overriding issue of police conduct toward black residents.

At a news conference Thursday, Olango’s mother, Pamela Benge, said she feels the pain of other mothers who have had sons killed recently by police.

“We need justice,” she said. “This kind of thing needs to stop.”

She said her son was a “good, loving young man” who adored soccer, his family and particularly his daughter.

She denied that he was mentally ill. He had become distraught over the recent death of a friend, she said.

“His mind was not communicating,” Benge said. “A mental breakdown is not easy to control.”

Flanked by ministers, community supporters and attorneys from Los Angeles and San Diego, she called for peaceful protests.

The Rev. Shane Harris, president of the National Action Network, said that the killing was “representative of what we’ve seen around the country.”

Olango “was attacked and not given the opportunity to live,” he said. “Alfred was not mentally ill, nor was he unstable.”

Harris said he does not trust the local district attorney to bring charges. The case should be transferred to federal authority, he said.

The shooting followed controversial police shootings in several locations in the United States. That increased the anger of protesters who took to the streets in El Cajon, a blue-collar suburb with a large immigrant population east of San Diego. It also prompted the police and elected officials to promise “transparency.”

As protesters filled the streets Wednesday night, they were watched closely by dozens of police officers  in riot gear who blocked them from approaching ramps to Interstate 8.

There were no arrests, but several protesters snatched a red campaign hat off the head of a Donald Trump supporter and attempted to set it on fire as the young white man fled. The hat bore the slogan Make America Great Again. Police also are investigating an incident in which a journalist was robbed of his camera.

Olango’s family has contacted a San Diego lawyer, Dan Gilleon, who once sued one of the officers involved over a sexual harassment allegation filed by a female colleague; the city settled the case and the officer, a 21-year veteran, was demoted. Gilleon says the officer should not be on the police force.

The two officers were not wearing body cameras, which are becoming more common in police departments across the country. But a cellphone used by an employee of a nearby taco stand captured some of the incident. The phone was voluntarily given to police, officials said.

While refusing to release the entire video, Police Chief Jeff Davis, just hours after the shooting, released a still photo from the video that purports to show Olango assuming a “shooting stance.” Olango did not have a gun. The object he pointed at police, according to the picture, was a silver “vaping” pen about three inches in length, police said.

Protesters, some with placards saying “Black Lives Matter” and “No Killer Cops,” marched near El Cajon police headquarters all day Wednesday and into the night. The protest was loud, with some in the crowd taunting police, but there was no violence between police and protesters.

San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, in cooperation with local police chiefs, has developed a policy of not releasing videos in police shootings until all investigations are complete. On Thursday morning, she said that the still photo was released to dispel “false narratives” that had begun to circulate that claimed, among other things, that Olango had his hands up when he was shot.

Dumanis said her office and the FBI are set to be briefed Monday by El Cajon police on the shooting. As a standard procedure, a district attorney investigator was sent to the scene Tuesday to observe and suggest questions that the police might ask, she said.

The shooting fit a pattern found during a study by Dumanis’s office in 2014 of several hundred police shootings in San Diego County between 1993 and 2012. The study found that in 45 percent of cases, the shooting occurred “immediately” after the officer arrived and that in most cases, two officers were on the scene when the shooting occurred.

Olango’s shooting happened within a minute of the officer arriving, police said. Also, two officers were present although it had taken them an hour to respond to the sister’s call.

The shooting also highlights a concern by police throughout the country: how to deal with persons with mental health issues. (The nature of Olango’s mental health has not been officially clarified.)

The El Cajon police, according to Mayor Bill Wells, have officers with specific training in dealing with the mentally ill, but those officers were at another call when the two officers confronted Olango. He said that 30 percent of police time in El Cajon involves dealing with people with mental health issues.

“We have to do better with the mentally ill,” Dumanis said Thursday.

Mental health issues are a factor in about a quarter of fatal police shootings, according to a Washington Post database tracking such incidents nationwide. Olango was at least the 716th person shot and killed by police this year. In 2016, 172 of those who have died had mental health issues.

Experts say such shootings highlight the issue of how often police are called to respond to people in mental or emotional crisis — and whether police training adequately prepares them to handle those calls.

In most cases last year in which people with reported mental illness were fatally shot by police, police were responding because relatives or bystanders were worried about the person behaving erratically; last year, this included dozens of explicitly suicidal people.

Wells, at a news conference Wednesday, sought to show sympathy for Olango and his family but say nothing critical of police. He called for protesters to remain calm and be patient until the investigation is complete.

“A tragedy occurred in El Cajon yesterday,” he said. “We lost a life.”

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