SAN DIEGO (CN) — The San Diego NAACP on Monday sued the San Diego County sheriff and El Cajon police chief for arresting protesters at a vigil for Alfred Olango, who was shot to death by an El Cajon police officer three weeks ago.
El Cajon police Officer Richard Gonsalves killed Olango on Sept. 27, responding to a 911 call from Olango's sister, who told the dispatcher the Ugandan immigrant was not "acting like himself" and was having a mental health crisis.
It turned out that Olango was upset about the death of his best friend.
The shooting sparked protests across San Diego and garnered national attention, as the latest case of police killing an unarmed black man. At a news conference hours after Olango's death, El Cajon Police Chief Jeff Davis said that Olango held a shiny metal object in a "shooting stance" before Gonsalves shot him four times and his fellow Officer Josh McDaniel shot Olango with a Taser. The shiny object Olango held was an e-cigarette.
The protesters were arrested on Oct. 1 at a vigil at a makeshift memorial where Olango was shot.
Among the 14 individual plaintiffs Carl Box, who provided a video to the American Civil Liberties Union, showing what appeared to be dozens of officers descending on and arresting people at the vigil near Los Panchos taco shop in El Cajon. After the arrests, ACLU San Diego legal director David Loy immediately asked Police Chief Davis to explain why the protesters were arrested.
In the lengthy complaint in San Diego Superior Court, Box says he was stopped and frisked unlawfully "because he sought to film the actions of the Sheriff's deputies." Box does not say, however, that he was arrested.
At least 12 other protesters were arrested, though, when they refused to disperse after police called the vigil an unlawful assembly, according to the complaint.
The NAACP, 11 adults and three children seek compensatory damages and at least $1 million in punitive damages "to make an example of defendants" to deter "future violations of the Constitution in similar circumstances."
They also want an injunction prohibiting the defendants from declaring an unlawful assembly and "dispersing free speech activities based on convenience" because they no longer want to "supervise the protesters."
They are represented by Todd Cardiff, Bryan Pease and Andrea Carter, all of San Diego.
The Sheriff's Department declared an unlawful assembly at around midnight on Oct. 1. The plaintiffs say the police issued the order because police "felt inconvenienced by the late night vigil."
About 80 people had gathered to pray and pay their respects for Olango near a memorial with candles, photographs, handwritten signs and a canopy. A barbeque was held and donations were collected for Olango's family.
The day after the arrests, El Cajon police sent an email stating that a fight had broken out between protesters and that "it was reported that someone was leaving to get a gun." The police department said that officers declared an unlawful assembly due to a "shift in the demeanor of the crowd."
The protesters deny that, citing Box's cellphone video that shows them peacefully praying.
A helicopter circling overhead informed the protesters the vigil was an unlawful assembly and told them to disperse immediately. Two lines of sheriff's deputies clad in riot gear and holding batons, accompanied by police dogs, blocked both exits of the shopping center and closed in on the mourners, according to the complaint.
The officers tore down signs and posters at the vigil, "because they disagreed and were offended by messages critical of the police and demanding justice for Alfred Olango," according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs call this an "illegal and unwritten curfew on free speech activities, intentionally chilling the free speech rights of plaintiffs and the community." These constitutional violations have made it impossible for the NAACP and others to "generate large crowds" at protests and vigils since Oct. 1 "due to fear of arrest and retaliation," according to the complaint.
Plaintiff Jamie Wilson says was at the vigil with her three children when she was arrested by officers who zip-tied her hands together and took her away. When other protesters told officers her children were screaming and crying, they agreed to release her if she and her children immediately left the vigil, according to the complaint.
Wilson says the officers threatened to place her children with Child Protective Services.
Plaintiff Michael Feinstein says the El Cajon police chief personally threatened to arrest him unless he left, and pointed to a "newly installed no trespassing sign."
Attorney Bryan Pease told Courthouse News that before the officers arrived, nothing at the vigil was violent or rose to the level of an unlawful assembly. He said he doubted that a district attorney would pursue charges against the protesters.
"The message they sent was to shut up and go home and don't talk about this anymore," Pease said.
The attorney called Olango's killing a shooting by "a bad cop, the worst of the worst, and they don't want the attention. In El Cajon, police come down hard on minorities and this is just standard operating procedure."
The San Diego District Attorney's Office does not comment on pending litigation.
The defendants are the city and county, Sheriff William Gore and Police Chief Davis.
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