When Alfredo Olango was shot and killed by El Cajon police last week, I was stunned. You hear about police shootings almost every week in the media. You grow accustomed to it. But you never know how hard it hits you until it happens in your own hometown.
El Cajon is now racked with protests, exemplified by the 200 people who marched through Prescott Promenade Park last week.
It’s hard to see something like this plague the streets near where you live. You never expect it to happen until it happens.
Some people claim the shooting was a murder. Others say it was justified.
“What happened to Alfred Olango shocked the world,” Shane Harris of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network said during a protest. “The world is watching San Diego County, and you will not get off this time.”
And he’s right. San Diego County and El Cajon are being watched by the world but, more importantly, they’re being watched by Americans across the nation. The entire country is wondering, what will happen? Will the district attorney clear the police they work with?
No matter the outcome in El Cajon, everyone must demand police accountability. We must demand that they be as transparent as possible when it comes to tragic cases, especially in officer-related shootings.
Police officers cannot be trusted to conduct an internal investigation of themselves. As is too often the case in police-related shootings, the officer may get sent home on paid administrative leave and return weeks later without another word. We do not trust any other agencies with conducting internal investigations and clearing themselves of wrongdoing. Why should we do so with police?
We see a conflict of interest between police departments and district attorneys as well. Assemblyman Kevin McCarty observed how attorneys develop close relations with police and are often reluctant to act on officer-related shootings due to this relationship.
President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing — a team of 11 investigators that was created in 2014 in an attempt to investigate the systemic issue of police-related shootings — determined that the need exists for independent investigators and prosecutors in officer-related shootings.
Changes were made in some states. For instance, in Wisconsin whenever the police shoot someone — which has happened 18 times this year — investigations are conducted by an outside agency. While this didn’t necessarily prevent riots from happening, like in the city of Milwaukee after the death of an armed black man, it led to less tension and more trust in the police.
Wisconsin was able to change because of the efforts of Michael Bell Sr., whose son died after being shot by a police officer during an arrest. It took him 10 years to get support for an outside agency to investigate police shootings. He ultimately gained the support of five police unions when the bill was passed by a Republican state legislature two years ago, and signed into law by Governor Scott Walker.
So far, according to the Sacramento Bee, only two states followed Wisconsin’s lead. California has a bill in the Assembly, but it has stalled.
Why has it stalled?
Law enforcement agencies have a tough job; there are only around 1 million police officers but over 310 million people in the United States. We have to realize that police officers’ jobs rely on the public’s trust. Their job becomes increasingly difficult when the public has no trust in them.
Thomas Jefferson once said, “When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property.”
This means that when someone signs up for law enforcement, they are signing away their life in service of the public and we should honor that. But it also means that we must demand that they are held to the highest standards. We cannot lower our expectations for law enforcement.
When a civilian shoots someone, they do not get to investigate themselves. They are investigated by the police department, the district attorney and federal authorities if necessary. If I were to shoot someone, I would not be allowed to clear myself. And there is no reason that police officers should be afforded any special privileges.
This does not mean that I am pro-Black Lives Matter. It does not mean that I am anti-law enforcement. It means I recognize that police shootings happen too often and the responses — riots, the burning down of shops, destruction of private property, increased violence and anti-cop rhetoric — are just as unacceptable.
It also means that I recognize we need to reform the police training protocols and hold our public servants accountable. Independent investigators and prosecutors are needed to ensure fairness in the process so that shootings and deaths will not continue to occur without significant reform and scrutiny.
We owe it to our country to ensure that what happened a few blocks away from my home doesn’t happen near yours