Monday, December 5, 2016
[San Diego County] El Cajon has paid nothing in police excessive force and civil-rights claims over past five years
Blog note: this article references city rejection of a grand jury report recommendation.
The city of El Cajon, thrust into the national spotlight in September when police shot and killed Alfred Olango, an unarmed black man, has had a spotless record the past five years defending its police over claims of excessive force or civil-rights violations.
A review of the legal claims filed against the Police Department during that time shows the city has not paid out any money to claimants or plaintiffs.
The largest expense has come in legal costs to the city for handling the claims. That totals $438,836.
The only significant police-related payout in recent years was made to one of the department’s own employees. Officer Christine Greer settled a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against Sgt. Richard Gonsalves for $90,000 last year.
She said Gonsalves had sent her lewd photos and texts and made unwanted advances toward her. Gonsalves is also the officer who fatally shot Olango in the parking lot of a taco shop the afternoon of Sept. 27.
Greer has since filed a second lawsuit alleging the department retaliated against her for her previous suit.
The lack of payments in excessive force and civil-rights claims echoes other data the city reported earlier this year when it rejected a call by the San Diego County civil grand jury to set up a citizens review board for police conduct.
At the time, the city said it had received just one formal complaint in 2015 out of 93,000 contacts with citizens, two the year before and eight in 2013. It said the low numbers of complaints showed there were good relations between the police and community.
Mayor Bill Wells said the claims payout data correlates to the complaints data.
“To keep the number of complaints at that level and the lawsuits at this level is indicative of the fact our police officers are trying and succeeding in staying in bounds and treating people with respect,” Wells said.
The city provided a list of all claims filed against the Police Department since 2011 in response to a Public Records Act request filed by The San Diego Union-Tribune. The list included claims for excessive force as well as more routine matters, such as traffic collisions.
The newspaper then asked for copies of 23 of those claims that alleged some kind of police misconduct involving excessive force, assault and brutality, and the amount of money paid out, as well as information on the Greer claims.
Formal legal claims are the first step that must be taken before filing a lawsuit against a government agency. Governments have 45 days to accept and pay a claim or reject it.
After that, the person making the claim has the option to file a civil lawsuit in court. Only seven of the claims the Union-Tribune reviewed ended up in state or federal courts.
The city prevailed in four of them, either winning dismissals or in one case a jury verdict, while three remain active.
That verdict came in a lawsuit filed by Raymond Goodlow. Officer Robert Bonilla shot Goodlow on the morning of Jan.18, 2013, in a used car lot on East Main Street. The officer had seen him riding a bike on the sidewalk, which is against the law in El Cajon, and when he tried to stop him Goodlow rode his bike into the lot.
There, stories diverge: Goodlow said after hearing a single command to get on the ground he was shot. Bonilla said Goodlow did not comply with commands to show his hands, cursed at the officer and seemed to be pulling something from his waistband.
After a four-day trial in federal court in 2015, the jury cleared Bonilla of using excessive force.
Other claims were less dramatic. One woman said she was roughed up by police when she was arrested Christmas Day in 2013, but after the city denied her claim she did not follow up. Another man said he was injured when he was being taken in a city police car to the Sheriff’s Department in 2012.
Among the active cases, Muayed Salih sued after he said police fired on him during an arrest on Sept. 1, 2012. When police encountered him, he was holding a tire iron, according to the lawsuit in San Diego Superior Court.
Lawyer Elliott Kanter said it can be difficult to win excessive force suits against police, because often the case comes down to one person’s word against the officer’s. Kanter represents a man in a current lawsuit who contends he was wrongly arrested and assaulted by police during an incident at an Applebee’s on Fletcher Parkway on Nov. 22, 2105.
“You’ve got to have independent witnesses, because the police officer is going to say certain things and you want your own independent witnesses,” Kanter said about the challenges for these cases.
Larger departments than El Cajon’s, which has 120 sworn officers, will pay settlements in excessive force cases more frequently. For example, San Diego in June paid $75,000 to a couple who said they were roughed up during an arrest in November 2012.
In July 2015, the Sheriff’s Department paid $1 million to the family of a Vista man with Down syndrome who was hit with a baton and pepper sprayed by a deputy who thought he was resisting arrest. In reality, the man was frightened and confused because he could not understand the deputy’s commands to him.
For El Cajon civil-rights advocate Estel De Los Rios, the city’s successful track record in excessive force claims should not be seen as a reason to reject citizen oversight of the department.
She has been an advocate for forming a review board, both before and after the Olango shooting.
“It shows to me we still need a civilian review board,” De Los Rios said. “I would say to Mayor Wells, if this shows there is a good relationship with the community, then let’s put it into practice with the board.”
On Tuesday, Olango’s father called for a federal investigation into his son’s death. Olango’s family have filed two claims against the city over his death, and the District Attorney’s Office has not yet finished its review of whether the shooting was justified.
Olango was killed when police responded to reports and a 911 call from his sister that he was acting erratically. As Gonsalves approached, Olango took what police described as a "shooting stance" and clasped a silver object with both of his hands. Gonsalves opened fire.
Olango, 38, had been holding a vaping device with a silver cylinder, police later said.
It was the 12th shooting by El Cajon police in the past 10 years, which is the highest per capita rate of shootings by any local police agency in the county, according to an analysis of shooting data by the Union-Tribune.
December 3, 2016
The San Diego Union-Tribune
By Greg Moran