Church leaders hold prayer meeting outside El Cajon police headquarters

Posted at 5:48 AM, Sep 30, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-30 15:27:24-04

EL CAJON, Calif. -- A group of East County religious leaders prayed for peace and unity in the city of El Cajon Friday morning following a spate of increasingly raucous protests over the fatal police shooting of an unarmed Ugandan immigrant earlier this week.

Pastors from up to 40 churches attended the prayer meeting outside El Cajon Police Department Headquarters, where some demonstrations had been held following the death of 38-year-old Alfred Olango on Tuesday, which protesters maintain was unwarranted and racially motivated. Organizers stressed that this morning's event is not a rally and no political speeches are planned.

Protests that developed at the strip mall near the intersection of Interstate 8 and state Route 67, where Olango was mortally wounded during a confrontation with officers, turned violent Thursday night. Officers from a multi-agency platoon arrested two men on suspicion of participating in an unlawful assembly and used pepper balls to disperse a crowd of 50 to 75, some of whom threw glass bottles at officers.
Protesters also stopped vehicles, broke car windows and knocked a rider off his motorcycle, according to EPD Lt. Rob Ransweiler.
Earlier Thursday, supporters of Olango decried the killing and vowed to fight for justice.
"We do believe that Alfred Olango was unjustly killed," the Rev. Shane Harris, president of the National Action Network-San Diego, said during a news conference at the civil rights organization's Midway-area offices. "We do believe that the officer who shot him five times did this with misconduct, and that is why we are here today."
Olango's death at the hands of police sparked widespread and nearly immediate protests.
A witness to the shooting told reporters that Olango had his hands raised when shot, and another indicated he may have had a seizure.
Police officials countered that Olango was uncooperative, repeatedly refused to remove his hand from his pocket, assumed "what appeared to be a shooting stance" and pointed an object that turned out to be an electronic smoking device at one of the officers.
The events that led to the fatal confrontation began when officers were dispatched to investigate a report of a pedestrian behaving erratically and walking in traffic in a commercial district a few blocks north of El Cajon Valley High School Tuesday afternoon.
Patrol personnel contacted Olango and moments later, one of the responding officers fired his service weapon while the other deployed an electronic stun gun. According to news reports, it took officers 50 minutes to respond to the initial call.
Olango's mother, Pamela Benge, said her son was distraught at the time of the shooting due to the death of a close friend, disputing reports that he was mentally ill.
"He was not mental -- he had a mental breakdown," she said.
Benge tearfully praised Olango as a decent person who simply needed help at the time of the deadly confrontation with police.
"My son (was) a good, loving young man, only 38 years old," she said. "I wanted his future to be longer than that. I wanted him to enjoy his daughter."
The grieving mother noted that her family had come to the United States 25 years ago to escape armed conflict in their homeland.
"We have come from a war zone," she said. "We wanted protection. That's why we're here. ... There are millions of refugees that are here, just searching for a better place. ... I thought a lovely nice country like this would protect us. We just need protection, that's all."
During a news conference Wednesday, El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells said he was "completely fine" with peaceful dissent but was concerned about the potential for violence.
"I see what's happening all over the country," Wells said. "Of course I'm worried. ... I don't expect anything bad to happen, but I certainly don't want to be caught unaware."
Hours after the shooting, police made public a still photo lifted from witness video that showed a crouching man holding something at face level as two officers apparently trained weapons on him. Protesters decried the release of just one photo instead of the entire video.
Wells said he had seen the full footage and was deeply affected by it but was holding off on any judgments.
"I saw a man who was distraught, a man who was acting in ways that looked like he was in great pain," Wells said. "And I saw him get gunned down and killed, and it broke my heart."
The officers, each of whom has more than 20 years of law enforcement experience, were placed on administrative leave, as per protocol. Officials promised a thorough and transparent investigation, but protesters demanded an investigation at the federal level.
San Diego attorney Dan Gilleon, who has been advising Olango's family, identified the patrolman who fired the fatal shots as Richard Gonsalves, who was demoted last year for making unwanted sexual advances toward a female subordinate.
Olango was born in Kampala, Uganda, one of nine children. His mother and siblings immigrated to New York as refugees in 1991, apparently because his father -- who worked for the late Ugandan President Idi Amin -- made threats of violence against them.
The family eventually moved to Southern California, and Olango attended San Diego High School for a time before dropping out, though he later earned a GED. According to his Facebook page, he attended San Diego Mesa College and worked at a Hooters restaurant.