By Dan Whitcomb
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) – The mother of an unarmed black man shot to death in Southern California said on Thursday her son was having a mental breakdown when he was confronted by police and they should have helped him instead of quickly opening fire.
Within two minutes of police arriving, Alfred Olango, 38, was shot to death in the San Diego suburb of El Cajon on Tuesday after he pointed an object that turned out to be an electronic cigarette at police, authorities said.
The shooting has sparked protests and calls from activists for a federal investigation. About 200 protesters gathered on Thursday night near the scene of the shooting, blocking traffic and throwing bottles and rocks at passing vehicles.
Police in riot gear tried to contain the demonstration, arresting several protesters.
It was the latest in a string of shootings of mostly unarmed black men by white police officers in the United States that have led to sometimes violent protests.
“Mental breakdown is not easy to confront. He needed someone who could … calm him down and then take care of the situation. That’s all the (911) call was called for, not to come and just finish his life,” Olango’s mother, Pamela Benge, said in tears at a news conference in San Diego.
Olango was distraught because his best friend had recently died, she said.
Attorneys for Olango’s family criticized authorities for releasing the image of Olango pointing the object at an officer, saying it gives an unfair impression of the former Ugandan refugee, and called for the public release of the full video taken by a bystander.
El Cajon officer Richard Gonsalves and a colleague on the police force, whose name was not released, were responding to emergency calls about a “mentally unstable” man walking in traffic, officials said.
Police have said the two officers encountered him at a strip mall and Gonsalves opened fire within two minutes of arriving at the scene. Attorneys for Olango’s family said it was closer to a minute.
Dan Gilleon, an attorney for Olango’s family, has accused the officers of escalating the situation. He said in a phone interview they should have taken cover and talked to Olango from a distance to defuse any tension.
“We all go through bad days. I don’t know that someone of my skin color would end up dead because they’re having a bad day,” Gilleon, who is white, said at the news conference.
Police have said Olango ignored commands to take his hand out of his pocket before pulling out an object later determined to be an electronic cigarette, a vaping device used to inhale nicotine. Olango assumed a “shooting stance” and pointed the object, which had a 3-inch-long (8-cm) cylinder, police said. No gun was ever found.
Gonsalves opened fire and the other officer discharged a Taser device, police said. Police have not said how many shots were fired. A family spokesman said Olango was shot five times.
The officers have been placed on administrative leave as El Cajon police and the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office investigate.
The full video of the incident has not been released, under an agreement between District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and law enforcement that mandates that any such video be released after the conclusion of her office’s review of a police shooting.
“The image was released by El Cajon PD to stop some of the inaccurate narratives forming about the incident, such as the subject of the shooting had his shirt off and his hands up when he was shot,” Tanya Sierra, a spokeswoman for the district attorney, said in an email.
Gilleon also cited Gonsalves’s history. He was accused of sexual harassment by fellow officer Christine Greer in 2015 in a case later settled, according to court records. The lawsuit said he sent her a text message of a picture of his penis.
Gilleon represents Greer in another lawsuit filed in August accusing Gonsalves and El Cajon officials of retaliation against the female officer.
An attorney for Gonsalves in the civil litigation did not return calls.
Olango, who attended high school in San Diego, recently moved back home from Arizona to be closer to his teenage daughter and was living with family and working at a furniture company, Gilleon said.
The news conference on Thursday was attended by several of Olango’s family members, including his teenage daughter who cried through most of it.
(Additional reporting by Laila Kearney in New York, Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Eric M. Johnson in Seattle,; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Lisa Shumaker)