A familiar scene around the nation – an unarmed black man shot and killed by police – has come to San Diego County.

El Cajon police shot and killed Alfred Olango Tuesday. Police have said Olango was behaving erratically, and that he pointed an object at officers while assuming a “shooting stance.”

El Cajon Police Chief Jeff Davis has said his office, and the San Diego County district attorney’s office, will both investigate the shooting.

As that process plays out, here’s what we know about when an officer can legally shoot someone, how the DA approaches the release of videos and other evidence in high-profile cases and how San Diego officers who’ve shot and killed people have been handled in previous cases.

When Police Can Kill

Though police shootings often generate an enormous amount of questions and controversy, prosecutors’ decisions on when to criminally charge an officer are pretty straightforward.

Two Supreme Court decisions from the 1980s set a very high bar for when police officers can be held criminally responsible for killing someone.

Here’s how we described the standard last year:

Law enforcement officers can use deadly force if they believe there’s an imminent threat of deadly force against them or someone else. Crucially, the standard is taken from what a so-called “reasonable officer” would believe at the time, not with the benefit of hindsight.

A recent Supreme Court case also made it harder to sue police in civil court for excessive use of force when they shoot suspects who are fleeing.

Those lawsuits can only go forward if it’s “beyond debate” that a shooting was unreasonable.

Less than 24 hours after the El Cajon shooting, police released a still shot from a cellphone video taken at the scene. They say it shows Olango taking a “shooting stance” toward officers.

This isn’t the first time law enforcement officers have simultaneously warned the public that videos and other evidence might not tell the whole story – while releasing evidence that does reinforce officers’ contention that a shooting was justified and that officers involved were reasonable in feeling threatened.

After a 2015 shooting in which a San Diego Police Department officer shot and killed an unarmed man, SDPD and the district attorney resisted releasing private security camera footage that captured the shooting. A federal court ultimately ruled the video should be made public following a lawsuit from Voice of San Diego and others.

In releasing the footage of that shooting, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis cautioned that it didn’t tell the whole story. At the same time, though, she released a carefully curated package of evidence that backed up law enforcement’s claims that the shooting was justified.

How the DA Handles Shooting Videos

Dumanis at one point had a policy only to release videos of shootings when they appeared as evidence in court. She reversed herself earlier this year and said she would release more videos publicly because “we recognize the times have changed.”

Less than two months ago, Dumanis announced a protocol for when she will release videos that depict officer-involved shootings to the public.

Any release will only happen after her office has completed its investigation, and after it notifies the department of the officer involved. Once that happens, only the pieces of an investigation deemed relevant by the DA will be released.

What is deemed “relevant” by the DA will ultimately shape how the public understands the case. When Dumanis released video of the April 2015 shooting – again, after being compelled to do so by a court – she also included information she deemed relevant to understanding that shooting. That included YouTube videos of people handling so-called butterfly knives, though the victim in the shooting was not carrying a knife when he was killed.

What’s Happened to San Diego Officers Who Kill

When the district attorney completes a review of an officer-involved shooting case, she writes a letter laying out her decision whether to charge the officer involved with a crime.

In 155 officer-involved shooting cases between 2005 and 2015, the DA did not find a single instance in which a police officer should be charged, according to a database compiled by inewsource.

According to the Union-Tribune, only six prosecutions of officers have taken place “in the hundreds of shootings in the county since 1980.”

In the April 2015 shooting, the SDPD officer involved has said in court documents that on top of not facing any criminal charges, he also did not face any discipline or even receive any feedback or criticism following the shooting.

Just because an officer-involved shooting does not meet the high bar for criminal prosecution, of course, does not mean that officers always do everything right.

But the DA’s office stays away from weighing in on whether an officer could have done something differently, or whether police departments should change their protocols in order to avoid more shootings. Its reviews of officer-involved shootings do not “examine such issues as compliance with the policies and procedures of any law enforcement agency, ways to improve training, or any issues related to civil liability,” according to the DA’s website.

In December 2014, the DA released a report with statistics from all officer-involved shooting reviews from 1993-2012, 358 cases in all.

The 15-page report includes statistics like the age and race of the officers and victims involved, but does not say anything about officer discipline or whether any were prosecuted for crimes related to the shootings.

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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