Protesters sue El Cajon police over arrests at vigil for Alfred Olango

More than a dozen protesters who were arrested at a vigil for Alfred Olango in El Cajon on Oct. 1 filed a lawsuit Monday, claiming police wrongfully ordered them to disperse and violated their civil rights. 

The lawsuit against the city of El Cajon, its police force, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department and the county claims the Saturday night gathering was peaceful and that protesters were forced to leave simply because the late-night vigil was an inconvenience for police. 

In total, 14 people were arrested shortly after midnight in a parking lot behind Los Panchos Taco Shop on Broadway — where Olango, 38, was shot and killed Sept. 27 by police. Protesters have repeatedly convened there since. 

A dozen people were jailed for refusing to leave after the gathering was declared an unlawful assembly, police said. Two others were arrested — one on an outstanding warrant and another on suspicion of public intoxication. 

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 14 people, including two minors who allegedly witnessed police arrest their mother. The San Diego branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People also is named as a plaintiff. 

“When defendants issued the order to disperse, there was no valid legal basis for declaring the assembly to be unlawful,” the lawsuit states. “The dispersal order was solely due to the inconvenience to police officers of monitoring a peaceful vigil at midnight.”

The order to disperse, according to the lawsuit, violated protesters’ 1st Amendment rights to assemble and freely express themselves. Five of the protesters claim they were participating in a prayer circle. 

The lawsuit also alleges police intended to make a statement to prevent future demonstrations. The lawsuit is asking a judge for an injunction against police to stop wrongful orders to disperse and the arrest of peaceful protesters.

Following the arrests, police said a fight had broken out between a few of the protesters and that someone reportedly left to get a gun. 

“Sensing this shift in the demeanor of the crowd, and out of concern for community safety, officers declared an unlawful assembly and ordered the group to disperse,” police Lt. Rob Ransweiler said in a statement on Oct. 2. 

A law enforcement helicopter broadcast the orders to disperse about midnight, according to the lawsuit.

The majority of the protesters left, but some stayed. “Officers spoke to those who remained and they promised to leave,” Ransweiler said. “Eventually, it became apparent the remaining protesters were not planning to leave.”

Jeff Provenzano, 31, was one of the dozen arrested. He has participated in protests since the El Cajon police shooting and said the turnout on the night of Oct. 1 was one of the smallest and most quiet. 

“For them to come in with such a show of force when people were just talking and praying was absolutely ridiculous,” he said a day after his arrest. “There were crazier things happening other days and the cops didn’t do anything.”  

Protesters “didn’t feel it was an unlawful protest because they didn’t feel they were doing anything that was unlawful,” Provenzano added.

He took video that shows a group of about 20 people huddled around and under a white canopy set up near the makeshift memorial for Olango. Slowly, a group of 50 to 75 officers in riot gear can be seen closing in on the space. Several officers stepped toward the group, removing several posters hung on the canopy between protesters and officers. The two groups talked briefly before the arrests began. 

That night marked the largest number of arrests in the days of protests and vigils that followed Olango’s death as the public demanded accountability and transparency from the El Cajon Police Department. 

Olango was fatally shot behind the Broadway taco shop near Mollison Avenue. His sister had called police and said Olango was not “acting like himself.” Others called 911 to report a man walking into traffic.

Two officers found Olango behind the taco shop, and when Olango took a shooting stance and pointed a silver vaping device at them, he was shot and killed. Videos released by authorities show him pointing the object at Officer Richard Gonsalves, who fatally shot him. Officer Josh McDaniel fired with a Taser. 

El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells declined Monday to specifically address the lawsuit. However, he said he agrees with his police force’s actions in response to the protests, including the declarations of unlawful assembly. 

“I think the police have acted exemplary through all of this," he said. “I think they've shown great compassion, great restraint. They've been very careful to prevent violence and have done a good job of protecting citizens at the same time.

“I think that it's difficult for some people to understand why police might do some things because they don't have all the information. They see what they see from their point without having a bird's-eye view. I’m not worried. Once all information is explained, I think all of this will be understood.”

On Monday night, dozens of protesters took to the streets and were met by law enforcement officers who lined up and blocked the entrances to Los Panchos and the surrounding strip mall. 

El Cajon police’s Twitter account advised residents to avoid the area. Police said at least two people were arrested but did not disclose more information. 

Hernandez writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Reporter Lyndsay Winkley contributed to this story. 

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