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North County Report: Oversight Demands Ramp Up Following Escondido Police Shooting

Escondido Police Chief Ed Varso speaks at the Take a Knee for Racial Justice and Community Unity event in 2020. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Community activists are continuing to demand the release of body camera footage and resurfacing demands for police reform a week after Escondido police officer Chad Moore shot and killed Steven John Olson, a 59-year-old homeless man.

Activists are pressing the Escondido City Council to adopt an independent oversight committee for police and cut police funding while beefing up social services.

In a statement Monday, the Escondido Police Department said it anticipates [1] releasing the footage later this week. Under state law, the department must release footage of fatal encounters within 45 days, unless release would impede an investigation. Escondido Police Chief Ed Varso said last week that Olson, armed with [2] a metal pry bar, charged Moore, who backed away and gave warnings before opening fire.

Regardless of what the footage shows, community members and homeless advocates are adamant the killing was preventable.

Escondido Mayor Paul McNamara in an interview Tuesday called the shooting a “failure” but attributed it in part to Olson’s previous encounters with law enforcement and his battles with mental health.

“The guy who was shot had been arrested 188 times. … The homeless guy was well known to police over many years, had a drug addiction and mental health issues. … the poor guy was never able to get his act together,” McNamara said. It is unclear if Moore knew of Olson’s legal or mental health history during the encounter, but Varso said in last week that Olson was well known to Escondido police and had a long history of “property crimes and violent offenses, including assaults on officers.” Moore has been an officer with the department since 2013.

“Secondly, society wasn’t able to connect with him recently,” McNamara said. “Candidly most of the homeless people with mental health and drug addictions or depression, those people actually have pretty decent resources they can get to and try to get back on their feet. We try to get them to help themselves. And I can tell you the poor police officer is going to live his whole life thinking if he did everything correctly and bear the burden. Taking a life is a big deal and a burden on your psyche. In my mind right now they’re going to go through investigation and the investigation may demonstrate he followed protocols and it may demonstrate he overreacted.”

The mayor said he is waiting for the various agencies investigating the incident to complete their work before he makes any decisions.

“I’m a Marine. In the heat of the moment if you feel you’re being threatened for your life your heart is racing and all that stuff. People ask me, ‘Well, why didn’t he just shoot him in the leg?’ Well, when you’re threatened, they’re going to aim for the center of mass. It’s all they can do,” he said. “For all we know the cop may have blown it, totally blown it and killed a man who didn’t deserve to die, but we need to let the process run its course and let investigation go on.”

Leyel Joy Malavé, an organizer with the activist group We the People Escondido, last summer said the group wanted a way for citizens to hold Escondido police accountable.

Now, she said she’s not surprised those demands haven’t been met “because it does take quite a bit of effort to get the City Council to move.” But she believes now is the time to press the Council to do more after a situation they were trying to prevent has occurred.

“They only want to move in prevention,” Malavé said. “They only want to move in clean-up when they’re trying to get something fixed that’s already broken. But there’s definitely a case right here in front of them now where they can make changes here in Escondido.”

McNamara acknowledged it takes a lot to get things moving at City Council. He said there likely won’t be any increase or decrease to the local police department budget this year. He said he could support a police oversight committee, and that he already spoke to Varso and the Escondido city manager about the possibility, but hasn’t brought it to the City Council because it’s unclear how it would be structured or how to give it authority given existing union protections for officers.

“It bothers me that people want simple solutions to complex problems and they don’t exist,” McNamara said. “And I think we need to have more of a community discussion and not fuel the flames.”

On Wednesday, the group clarified its ask to McNamara and sent a letter to the City Council detailing its demands for the oversight committee: “At minimum the oversight committee shall hold the power to suggest/recommend necessary reconciliation following any complaint, report or investigation involving an Escondido Police Officer; this includes but is not limited to recommendations for training, disciplinary actions, and policy changes,” the letter reads. “Citizens will have the ability to request a secondary examination through the oversight committee, additionally the committee will accept whistleblowers complaints in which the citizens’ identities shall remain confidential. Therefore, the committee should have access to all critical information and evidence necessary to make recommendations for a secondary opinion.” It’s a “necessary step toward transparency with the community,” the letter reads.

McNamara’s thoughts on the budget aren’t new: Last year, he told the Coast News he empathizes with the movement to defund police, but wouldn’t budge [3] on spending in part because the city spends less on law enforcement per capita than other cities.

Escondido’s police budget has trended upward in the last five years, though last year’s $45.6 million department budget decision declined slightly from a year earlier. The City Council, though, did not meet community activists’ demands [4] to divert police spending to social services.

Last week’s police shooting isn’t an unfamiliar sight in Escondido. A report by the Union-Tribune and analysis by the Coast News last year revealed [5] that 217 people died at the hands of county-wide law enforcement over the last 20 years, and 12 of them were in Escondido. Nine of those deaths occurred between 2001 and 2011.

In a video last summer, Varso said his officers are trained to exhaust all other means before shooting someone. “Police brutality is absolutely unacceptable,” he said. “I didn’t get into this job to hurt people and I know my officers didn’t get this job to use their authority to hurt people.”

Last week, Varso said in a video [6] that the shooting is under investigation and the process includes an independent review by the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, the U.S. attorney’s office and the FBI. “We will be transparent and sharing the facts and the body cam video as the investigation progresses,” he said.

The shooting has illuminated a lack of help for residents who are homeless and have mental illness.

Michael McConnell, a homeless advocate who was at a demonstration in front of the Escondido Police station last Wednesday night said, “Here’s someone the police are saying was very well known to have mental health issues and was rotating through the system many times, and never got the help he needed … He’s dead because our system failed him, plain and simple,” according to the Union-Tribune [7].

Malavé and other community activists, including North County Racial Justice Coalition leader Yusef Miller, are protesting the “murder of one of our citizens by the Escondido Police Department” Wednesday night in front of the Escondido City Council chambers.

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