Feature image: Placard reads, “Escondido police release the video.” Liberation photo: Anzy Adams
Update: Following the April 28 protest in Escondido, body camera footage was released the following evening.
Escondido Police officer Chad Moore fatally shot Steven John Olson, a houseless community member, on the morning of April 21 shortly after 7 a.m. Police claimed that he was holding a metal bar and threatened the officer. Video from after the incident and eyewitness testimonies seem to conflict with key points of Escondido PD’s version of events. Activists in Escondido called a protest on the night of the shooting, and continued the fight for transparency and accountability with a rally one week later at City Hall.
About 50 people demonstrated in front of City Hall on the evening of April 28 to express their frustration with the killing and to demand that Escondido police release video footage of the shooting. Organizations in attendance included We The People Escondido, Party for Socialism and Liberation San Diego, and East County Black and Indigenous People of Color Coalition. Passing cars honked in support and several community members spoke and led chants.
Escondido Police Chief Ed Varso said in a statement about the shooting, “We received reports of an adult white male hitting cars with a metal pole.” According to the police, an officer approached the man, initially determined that he did not pose an immediate threat, and Olson left the scene while the officer stayed behind and spoke with the person who had called the police. Minutes later, the second officer Chad Moore made contact with Olson on Broadway.
Varso claimed, “As the officer exited his vehicle, the male immediately advanced on the officer while holding the [two-foot metal] tool in a threatening manner.” Many initial reports from the media also identified the tool as a metal crowbar or a metal pole. However, video news reports from the scene appear to show a windshield squeegee left in the street rather than a metal bar.
Houseless community member and witness to the shooting Laban Davis told CBS News 8 that the man did not present a threat and the fatal shooting was “unnecessary.” His testimony conflicts with the story given by police. He explained, “The guy wasn’t really no threat … he was going like this [with his hands up], he was just walking. He wasn’t running or swinging [the tool] … they say there was one [gunshot], but there were like five or six shots this morning.”
Escondido PD has promised to release at least portions of the bodycam video but have not taken any action yet to provide transparency to the community.
“Steve Olson deserved better. Not only in the moments of his death, but also in his life.” said Leyel Malave, one of the organizers from We The People Escondido who called and led the protest. “EPD arrested Steve over 180 times. They use this statement to slander his name, but this only speaks volumes about the system that we live in today … a system that can’t afford housing, healthcare, education and community services, but yet is able to afford big corporate bailouts and militarizing the police. The system was never built for people like us. It was never built for people like Steve Olson. … We wanted to move funds from our police department to services that would actually prevent crime and houselessness; that’s why blood is not only on the hands of Chad Moore, but also on EPD and our City Council.”
The incident occurred just a few months after Escondido PD established a new de-escalation policy, implemented under pressure from community organizations including the LGBTQ Resource Center, the NAACP, and the North County Equity and Justice Coalition. The policy — a document several pages long — asks officers to “put themselves in the shoes” of people experiencing a crisis and try to de-escalate situations with verbal warnings and by calling for backup rather than using force, especially when a mental health crisis is involved. Activists are questioning whether there will be any repercussions for officers like Chad Moore who fail to follow the department’s stated policy.
Varso calls the de-escalation policy “a work in progress,” and posted photos of himself in uniform at a Black Lives Matter protest during the summer of 2020, yet incidents like these continue to occur.
Examining the long list of killings by police in San Diego, it’s clear that the “officer friendly” act is a deliberate attempt to deflect criticism about racial bias in policing. It’s an attempt to obscure the white supremacist roots of modern policing, which evolved directly out of slave patrols. Despite the superficial public relations moves made by Varso, EPD continues to serve its core function of protecting private property instead of human lives, and upholding the existing power structures of capitalist society. Officers continue to brutalize working-class and oppressed people, in many cases those in need of housing and access to mental health services.
Malave encouraged attendees at the rally to keep up the pressure and to continue organizing to fight for a better world: “This is the first step … it doesn’t take experience, it doesn’t take a degree, it doesn’t take money. It takes love, compassion and courage to make revolutionary change.”
Community organizations are planning a vigil in remembrance of Steven Olson’s life on the evening of April 30.