SAN DIEGO (CN) — The San Diego American Civil Liberties Union called on El Cajon police to provide more information on the arrests of more than a dozen protesters and vigil attendees mourning the police shooting death of Alfred Olango over the weekend.
ACLU legal director David Loy sent a 3-page letter Monday to El Cajon Police Chief Jeff Davis requesting information on why police arrested mourners participating in a vigil Saturday night in the parking lot where Olango was shot last week by 21-year veteran Officer Richard Gonsalves.
Olango's sister called police three times in the hour before the shooting to get help for her brother, who was having a mental breakdown following the death of his best friend. Gonsalves and Officer Josh McDaniel responded to a parking lot in the city 15 miles east of San Diego where Olango had been reportedly walking in and out of traffic.
Video footage of the shooting released Friday by San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis shows Gonsalves shot Olango four times within a minute of responding to the mental health call.
The shooting led to days of protests since Sept. 27, with multiple protests held across San Diego County over the weekend.
El Cajon Police sent out an email alert Sunday afternoon, hours after 14 adults were arrested Saturday night at a vigil and protest. Police say a fight broke out between some protesters and "it was reported that someone was leaving to get a gun."
Due to what the police call a "shift in the demeanor of the crowd," officers declared an unlawful assembly and ordered the group to disperse. While the majority of the group left, some protesters remained and did not listen to officers' commands to leave, according to the police memo.
Fourteen people were arrested, 12 of them for failing to depart an unlawful assembly. One person was arrested on an outstanding warrant and another was detained on a public intoxication charge, according to police.
But the ACLU says available information, including a cellphone video, does not show a violent, aggressive crowd. It shows a couple dozen people gathered at a peaceful vigil to pray and remember Olango.
The cellphone video was posted to Facebook by a man named Carl Box. People of all ages, including some children, were gathered under a white tarp in the parking lot. Members of Olango's family as well as close friends were reported to be in attendance. Dozens of pillar candles and handwritten posters and messages were hung up near the makeshift memorial.
A police helicopter circling overhead announced the gathering was being declared an unlawful assembly and ordered people to disperse. A least a few dozen police officers in riot gear approached attendees in line formation from two directions, essentially surrounding the mourners.
One woman is heard yelling at police, "My seven-year-old son said he doesn't want you to kill him." Another child is heard crying and saying they were scared.
The mourners are seen embracing one another in a group hug as police surround them and begin to take some into custody. People can be heard saying "you didn't read me my rights" while being placed into patrol cars.
As police closed in on the group, the man who took the video yells at police, "This is the problem with America. No matter what we do, this happens every single day." Some officers tore down posters and messages covering the makeshift memorial.
Loy of the ACLU acknowledged in a phone interview that "no video necessarily tells the complete story," but wants El Cajon Police to tell the public why a peaceful vigil would be declared an unlawful assembly, especially when available videos appear to show no one violated any laws.
He did not know if any of Olango's family members or friends were arrested Saturday.
If a fight did in fact occur near the vigil, it would not legally justify arresting the mourners at the peaceful vigil, he said, since bystanders cannot be arrested if an unlawful assembly is declared nearby.
"The public has a right to know if this was an unlawful arrest," Loy said. "This is not new law, it's old law that should be drilled into every police department."
He said the police department's "actions are not matching their words," as both Davis and Mayor Bill Wells said multiple times at press conferences following Olango's death they respected protesters' rights to peacefully assemble and would ensure their rights were upheld.
Loy was also concerned about the "militarization" of police and questioned the "terribly intimidating, hostile and confrontational escalation" by dozens of officers clad in riot gear in dispersing what appeared to be a peaceful vigil.
He said the issue of police response and escalation even applied to the circumstances surrounding Olango's death.
"Was it necessary to escalate to deadly force so quickly?" Loy asked. "They were not responding to a violent crime, it was a call for help. I have serious concerns about how the officers responded. They may very well have escalated the situation and created an unnecessary need for deadly force. I'd like to think a life is worth more than a minute. Maybe they responded as they're trained to do and the problem is with the training."
El Cajon Police have not yet responded to the ACLU's request for more information on the weekend arrests. The department did not immediately return a phone request for comment.
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