How a Ugandan refugee became an American police shooting statistic
On what would be the last day of his life, Alfred Olango showed up at his sister’s apartment in El Cajon, California, in the morning hours. His knocking woke her up.
Alfred was acting strangely – confused, paranoid – and said he hadn’t slept for two days. Lucy Olango, an aide in a psychiatric facility, recognized signs of a mental breakdown.
So she called the 911 emergency number to report that Alfred was mentally unstable and needed hospitalization. It was the first of three such calls she made, pleading for help.
More than an hour later, El Cajon police did respond, although not with the help Lucy expected. As she watched in horror, Alfred was shot four times during a tense encounter with officers. Although he was unarmed, he made a gesture that looked as though he was pointing a gun.
The death of Alfred Olango, 38, on Sept. 27, 2016, was among several captured on video in a year when anger over U.S. police shootings, particularly of black men, rose to new heights.
But his case stood out: His status as a Ugandan refugee brought international attention not only to the issue of race, but to how police react to people with psychiatric problems – a factor in about 25 percent of all fatal civilian encounters with police.
For those reasons, VOA and NBS-TV in Kampala teamed up to more closely examine what happened after Lucy Olango called for help – and whether the shooting could have been prevented.
Our finding: Although Alfred Olango took actions that put him at risk, the system designed to defuse encounters between police and the mentally disturbed also failed him.
A special police team to respond to mental health calls was on duty that day in El Cajon. Previously, local authorities said the two-person Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT) was busy elsewhere and unavailable to respond to Lucy Olango’s calls.
But in answer to a public records request from VOA and NBS, the city of El Cajon released documents – summaries of 911 call records – showing that, in fact, the PERT unit did become available. Although Lucy Olango waited nearly an hour for help, the special psychiatric team was sent to a possible trespass at a youth club.
The summaries for the youth club call make no mention of a mental health issue and the situation resolved without an incident report.
Meanwhile, the Olango call ended in tragedy – one of 963 police shooting fatalities in the U.S. during 2016, according to a count by The Washington Post. (There were 987 such incidents in 2017, according the Post’s statistics.)
The local district attorney ruled that El Cajon police Officer Richard Gonsalves was justified in using deadly force when Alfred Olango pointed a vape pipe – for electronic smoking – at him during the encounter. Officials said Olango took what looked like a shooting stance.
But Lucy Olango, Alfred Olango’s estranged wife and two of his three children, and his father have sued the city and Gonsalves, claiming emotional distress and violations of Olango’s civil rights.
Now, the 911 call summaries reveal a new element in the tragedy – a missed opportunity for the unit trained for such incidents to intervene.
“This was a big mistake not sending that PERT team to this (Olango) call because they had every evidence needed that this was the call that required the PERT team,” said Daniel Gilleon, the attorney representing Lucy Olango.
Lucy Olango said Gonsalves used an aggressive approach that only increased the tension with her brother when de-escalation tactics could have helped to calm him down.
“Pulling your gun and saying ‘Put your hands up’ is not a way you come at a person who is having a mental breakdown,” Lucy told VOA and NBS.
“You haven’t even engaged in with this person. You did not find out what was wrong. Can I help you? What is wrong? Is there something that I can do?” she said.
From northern Uganda to US
Alfred Olango was born in Lukutu Village in northern Uganda in 1978, a middle child among nine in his family.
Richard Olango Abuka quickly established himself, winning a “Point of Light” award from then-President George H. W. Bush for helping other African refugees. He studied to be an accountant and coached children’s soccer.
Walter Lam is president and CEO of the Alliance for African Assistance, a nonprofit that helps settle refugees and works with underprivileged and immigrant communities around San Diego.
“Normally when I see the refugees coming down the escalators, I can tell whether this will be a successful case or will be a bad end. And when I saw the Olangos, I celebrated,” Lam said. “This is a family that looks unified; they are all together and on and on.”
The Olango family
The Olango children went to a Catholic school, then on to San Diego High School.
Alfred’s siblings say he was jovial, protective and generous.
“Alfred was someone who always made sure you were fine,” said his brother Apollo Olango. “He’s given his shirt to a homeless person while we were walking down the street in San Diego. Apparently he had an extra one in the car.”
But growing up in an adopted country wasn’t always easy. Starting in his teen years, Alfred Olango tumbled into a string of run-ins with the law.
At age 17, he was convicted for taking a car without consent. Three years later came a conviction for receiving stolen property. Two convictions for driving under the influence followed, as did another for selling drugs.
FILE – Alfred Olango’s father Richard Olango Abuka, right, with Rev. Shane Harris, left, standing in the back address the news media about the death of Alfred Olango, in San Diego, Nov. 3, 2016.
Then, one night in late 2005, police in Aurora, Colorado, stopped his car for having tinted windows and found marijuana, two hits of the amphetamine ecstasy and, under a floor mat, a 9mm semiautomatic pistol. Officers ordered Alfred Olango out of the car at gunpoint, police reports state.
As a felon, it was illegal for Olango to possess a gun; he said it was for protection. A judge sentenced him to 46 months in federal prison and three years of probation.
After his release from prison in 2009, Alfred Olango returned to the San Diego area and found work as a cook. Apollo and Lucy Olango said Alfred was estranged from his wife, but relished spending time with their daughter.
He dreamed of opening his own restaurant one day – featuring African and other cuisines. “He was one of the best cooks as well,” sister Lucy recalled. “I beat him at cooking so far, but mom taught us and all of them how to cook. It didn’t matter whether it was a boy or girl – everybody.”
Apollo Olango said that by the time of the shooting, his brother had left his rough times behind.
“All I can say in that particular situation, when you come to a new country, sometimes it’s difficult learning the ropes,” Apollo Olango said. “But I believe he put himself on the straight and narrow track eventually and started walking a direct line.”
Suicide of a friend
In the months before the shooting, Alfred Olango had spent time in Phoenix, Arizona, where he’d previously worked at a restaurant, before coming back to San Diego. He missed his family and another important person in his life, a friend and fellow immigrant, Bereket Demsse.
Demsse, an Ethiopian, had been friends with Alfred since elementary school. But Demsse’s life took a tragic turn after an assault left him paralyzed from the waist down.
“Bereket was a guy who was very active,” said Jama Mohamed, a friend of Demsse’s. “And all of a sudden, he transitions into being in a wheelchair. It hits him hard.”
Mohamed works with United Women of East Africa, an organization that provides mental health services to immigrants in the San Diego area.
Alfred Olango, left, with his friend, Bereket Demsse.
Mohamed said Demsse was despondent over his health and a relationship. Just days before Alfred was shot, Demsse took his own life.
“He (Alfred) had hung out with his friend Bereket, and even took him and drove him and went to my mom’s place,” Lucy Olango said. “And he dropped off Bereket, I don’t know exactly what day, back to his place. And then Bereket committed suicide.”
“(Alfred) was just so devastated,” she said. “They were so close.”
Knowing his brother was in emotional pain, Apollo Olango made plans for them to talk. Alfred was going to drive him to the airport the following day for Apollo’s trip to Uganda to see relatives. Apollo says he and Alfred planned to “spend some time together and go over exactly what went on so I could be there for him.”
“That’s what I wanted to do,” Apollo Olango said. “But he never made it.”
Three Calls to 911
Instead, the morning the two were to meet, Alfred showed up at Lucy’s apartment.
After Lucy called 911, she left him to get ready for work. When she returned, Alfred was gone. He’d left his shirt and cellphone behind. Then, as Lucy began her drive to work, she was shocked to see Alfred wandering in and out of traffic and across the median on Broadway, a busy street a block from her apartment. She repeatedly tried to persuade him to stop, to no avail. Alfred wasn’t responding.
According to the San Diego County District Attorney’s account of the shooting, “Ms. Olango called 911 again and asked the operator to send someone, but was told they had other priority calls.”
The police dispatcher 911 call summaries show this second call came in at 1:44 p.m. With no officers arriving, Lucy called a third time 17 minutes later, saying she feared her brother would be hit by a car.
At 2:03 p.m., police dispatched two patrol units to the area on what they described as a “5150” call – a code for reporting someone with a mental problem. Lucy saw police cars at the ARCO gas station on Broadway and approached Officer Gonsalves.
“I met him and told him my brother is not armed,” she told VOA and NBS. “He’s not doing very well, he’s having a mental breakdown and needs help.”
“He asked me if my brother ever was diagnosed with mental illness, schizophrenia, bipolar or whatever. I told him not to my knowledge. And I was done with him (Gonsalves) and he went to the site looking out for Alfred,” Lucy said.
Shooting caught on video
Gonsalves drove out of the ARCO station and soon spotted Alfred Olango across the boulevard. Lucy saw him, too, and followed. What happened next was recorded on the drive-through camera at Panchos Mexican Grill restaurant and on an employee’s phone. Both videos were later released by police.
The videos show Alfred Olango walking backward, away from Gonsalves, who had his gun out and periodically spoke into his radio. On police scanner recordings, Gonsalves states that Olango is refusing his orders: “Still not compliant. Still won’t get his hand out of his pocket.”
As Gonsalves closes in on Olango in the parking lot, another officer pulls up and points a Taser. Lucy can be seen and heard in the background shouting at her brother to follow the policeman’s orders.
FILE – Demonstrators hold a march and rally to protest the fatal police shooting of Ugandan immigrant Alfred Olango in El Cajon, California, Oct. 1, 2016.
Instead, Alfred Olango swiftly spins and aims an object at Gonsalves. Shots ring out, and Olango drops to the ground.
The object turned out to be a vape pipe. Gonsalves said it looked like a gun.
In January 2017, then-District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis cleared Gonsalves of criminal liability, saying, “The lack of other effective options in the split-second of time provided Officer Gonsalves with no other choice, but to respond with deadly force.”
Michael Biasotti is a retired police chief who now works as a consultant on issues of law enforcement and mental illness.
“Every police officer deals with this on a daily basis,” Biasotti said. “It’s a very large percentage of police calls.”
He reviewed the shooting videos at the request of VOA and NBS. He said it was reasonable for Gonsalves to approach with gun drawn given Alfred Olango’s failure to follow commands. When Olango turned and pointed, Biasotti said, Gonsalves had few options.
“He’s gambling with his life that that’s not a firearm,” Biasotti said.
Where was the PERT unit?
Two decades ago, San Diego County became one of the first places in the United States to begin training police on how to interact with people in mental crisis and prevent encounters from turning violent.
Mark Marvin, director of the PERT program in the county, said 11 local law enforcement agencies, including El Cajon police, operate PERT units that pair a clinician with an officer. Training in PERT is encouraged for other officers but is not mandatory at all agencies, he said.
When possible, the goal of the PERT team in such encounters is to de-escalate, or “slow it down, engage in a conversation, take the time,” he said. “It’s all about relationship building. Having a conversation with someone.”
Among other things, officers are taught to recognize when someone is hallucinating or delusional, he said. Some training involves shoot/don’t shoot exercises in simulated encounters.
The city of El Cajon declined to say whether Gonsalves or the other officer on the Olango call were among 51 sworn and non-sworn officers – just under half the force – who had received PERT training.
In a news release after the shooting, the city said the PERT unit on duty that day “was on a different radio call that was also PERT related. They were not immediately available.”
The 911 call summaries and other information the city released to VOA and NBS suggest otherwise.
In a response to questions from VOA and NBS, the city’s attorney, Barbara Luck, said the PERT clinician began work at 8 a.m. with one uniformed officer, then paired up with a different officer two hours later. At some point, the team drove someone to a psychiatric hospital and then returned to the city.
At 1:07 p.m. – 10 minutes after Lucy Olango first called police – “a female working alone and scared” at a local boys and girls club also contacted 911, saying someone had “jumped the fence.”
The woman called twice more, ultimately reporting at 1:49 p.m. that the subject “is by the front door dancing / rp says they are opening in 10 min and J’s (juveniles) are coming then.”
There is no mention of a psychiatric problem in the call summary. By contrast, Lucy Olango had reported that her “brother is mentally unstable” and “needs mental evaluation/he is not acting himself.” In her second call at 1:44 p.m., she said Alfred “is now walking in traffic.”
PERT team dispatched
With both callers waiting, the PERT unit became available. Dispatchers sent it to the boys and girls club at 1:53 p.m.
That situation apparently was minor; city attorney Luck wrote that “no incident report was generated” as a result.
Meanwhile, Gonsalves arrived at the ARCO station, spoke with Lucy Olango, then drove to the parking lot next to Panchos Mexican Grill, arriving at 2:11 p.m. The shooting happened within minutes.
Alfred Olango and his sister Victoria.
City officials declined to explain why the PERT team was sent to the boys and girls club for what appeared to be a simple trespass. Asked if the Olango shooting had prompted any changes in police dispatch procedures, city attorney Luck wrote, “No.” The 911 call summaries, she said, “speak for themselves.”
VOA also contacted El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells and Police Chief Jeff Davis. Both declined to comment because of pending Olango family lawsuits.
Luck said Gonsalves was placed on leave after the shooting and returned to duty about five weeks later. By then, however, his prior record at the El Cajon Police Department had become part of the story.
Nine months before the shooting, the city settled a lawsuit alleging that Gonsalves had harassed a female officer by, among other things, texting her a sexually explicit photo. Local news reports said he had been demoted from sergeant to patrol officer as a result.
Gonsalves’ lawyers did not respond to requests for comment, and Luck said the city could not discuss a personnel matter. The lawsuit reportedly settled for $90,000.
Dan Gilleon, attorney for Lucy Olango, said having a PERT unit at the scene might have been a lifesaver for his client’s brother.
“I think that PERT team could have actually have calmed down Alfred Olango, and it might have calmed down Richard Gonsalves,” Gilleon said.
“I might have said to Alfred Olango, ‘We’re here to help.’ And it might have said to Richard Gonsalves, the officer, ‘Cowboy is not needed here. We’ve got this under control. We know how to deal with people with mental illness.’”
Alfred and Lucy Olango.
Finding hope in grief and loss
Family members have created a charitable foundation in Alfred Olango’s memory. They hope to bring attention to issues they say Alfred cared about, including homelessness.
“I definitely want to tackle procedural issues – policing-wise – to make sure that there’s a halt to all these shootings that are going on,” Apollo Olango said. “Some sort of a change that is better for people – so that people don’t have to suffer like this.”
More than a year after the shooting, Lucy Olango said her family is still grieving. And she struggles with understanding how a system designed to help people such as her brother seemed to break down.
“What do you learn when you’re in school? Little kids, 2-year-old, you know like 5 or 6. Something happened, what do you do? Call 911,” she said. “Things have changed a lot.”
“When I called (911), I was hoping they could help him. Take him to the hospital and he could come home,” Lucy said.
“He’s not going to come home. He never did.”