Less than two months after county leaders announced a first-of-its kind regional policy to guide the release of videos that capture police-involved shootings, that policy got a big test.
They seem to have thrown parts of it out the window.
In releasing video of the Tuesday shooting of Alfred Olongo, law enforcement leaders did not, as they pledged in August, wait until an investigation of the incident was complete.
“We have not formed any conclusion yet” about whether the shooting was justified, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis said at the press conference Friday where the video was played for members of the media.
In releasing the video before determining whether any wrongdoing took place, law enforcement appeared to have instead signed on to the procedure urged by San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman.
Though Zimmerman has generally opposed the release of body-worn camera and other videos of shooting incidents, she said last year that she might support making footage public if it would stave off dangerous public demonstrations:
“It could be again for public safety. It could be, as we have seen in other cities where public safety is at risk, where people are damaging property, assaulting people, in a riot type situation,” Zimmerman said at a press conference in 2015. “There could be exceptions, yes. And that’s where you’d have to weigh the public safety versus the due process of whoever that individual is.”
Indeed, at the press conference Friday, flanked by other law enforcement officers including Zimmerman, El Cajon Police Chief Jeff Davis detailed a long list of grievances he had with the protestors who have been demonstrating in the wake of Olongo’s death.
On Wednesday, “several glass bottles were thrown at officers and deputies, and at one point, a civilian was assaulted in the crowd,” Davis said. “These events marked a change in the protestors from peaceful to more aggressive behavior.” Davis said protestors on Thursday were harassing motorists and jumping on vehicles, prompting several 911 calls. He said protestors assaulted officers with “rocks, bottles and bricks,” prompting police to issue an order for the crowd to disperse Thursday night, and to pepper-spray some who stayed.
Davis and Dumanis both said at the press conference that the decision to release the video before an investigation was complete was made in partnership with law enforcement leaders from throughout the county on Friday morning. They said they made the decision in order to avoid further violent protests.
“We came to this decision based on our collective concern for the public safety in the community,” Davis said.
In simultaneously condemning the El Cajon protests and emphasizing that the violent nature of the demonstrations is what prompted the release of the video, San Diego law enforcement officers are setting a peculiar precedent. They are essentially saying that violence will guarantee – or at least speed up – a video’s release. And they’re doing it in the name of preventing violence.
The Friday video release did follow the protocol announced in August in one way: Dumanis said at the time that the faces of officers, witnesses and victims would be blurred out in any footage made available to the public. The faces of officers and Olongo were blurred out, making it difficult to discern what was happening, and particularly when Olongo assumed a “shooting stance” – something El Cajon police said earlier this week justified the shooting.
Before the Friday video release, El Cajon police released a still image of two officers and Olongo, unblurred, that appeared to show him pointing an object at officers.
At the press conference, Davis showed images of the object Olongo was holding – a four-inch vaping device.