Video: Homeless man refuses to drop crowbar, is fatally shot by police

Police said they were familiar with the man, who had a nearly two-decade history of arrests and several failed attempts to get him mental health services


By Teri Figueroa
The San Diego Union-Tribune

ESCONDIDO, Calif. — Escondido police on Thursday released video of a patrol officer fatally shooting a 59-year-old homeless man who'd been carrying a 2-foot crowbar while closing in on the armed officer.

The nearly nine-minute video includes a mix of police laying out details, as well as surveillance and body-worn camera footage of the April 21 encounter. And it shows the moment the officer pulled the trigger — which came after he'd backpedaled about 65 feet and repeatedly warned Steven John Olson to drop the object.

Police said the officer fired when Olson was about 7 feet away.

Escondido police said they were familiar with Olson, who had a nearly two-decade history of arrests and was the subject of several failed attempts to get him mental health services.

State law calls for law enforcement agencies to release video of fatal encounters or other critical incidents within 45 days unless it would impede the investigation. Escondido released the footage about eight days after Olson was killed. Protesters have twice rallied to demand police release the footage, including a gathering last night after police said they would do so before the end of the week.

About 7 a.m. on the morning of the shooting, someone called police to report that Olson was striking cars with a metal object in the area of Second Avenue and Broadway. One officer stopped Olson, but he walked off. Soon, another officer, Chad Moore, was headed to another call when he happened to come across Olson walking down the middle of Broadway.

Moore, who has been with the department for eight years, was familiar with Olson. The officer initially tried to talk to Olson while still in his patrol SUV, using his loudspeaker and airhorn — a de-escalation technique, police said. Olson ignored it.

The video shows Moore get out of his SUV to talk with Olson, who approaches while clutching a crowbar.

Moore pulls out his gun. Olson, muttering, continues to approach. Moore walks backwards, moving from the middle of the street to the sidewalk.

Some of the what Olson says at that point is hard to decipher. According to department spokesman Lt. Kevin Toth, Olson said: "You've got some problem, and you're going to get hit."

"Steven! You are gonna get shot!" the officer yells.

"I know and you are gonna get hit," Olson replies. He continues to approach, speaking incoherently.

"Steven — drop that pipe now! Drop it," Moore orders.

Moore opens fire. As he does, a black sedan enters the background about 20 or 30 yards behind Olson. The driver hits the brakes. Approaching the intersection on nearby Second Avenue is a school bus.

Olson was shot six times. Police offered first aid until paramedics arrived and took him to a hospital, where he died.

Last week, in a videotaped statement, Escondido police Chief Ed Varso said Olson had a nearly nearly 190 arrests over 19 years, coupled with several attempts to get him mental health assistance.

In the video released Thursday, Toth said Olson had been arrested four times over the last year for threatening people with deadly weapons, including a box cutter, knife, piece of metal and a stick. He also said Olson had previously served a prison term for assault with a deadly weapon.

And, he said, Olson had been placed on five mental health holds at hospitals since 2015. This year alone, he was the subject of 23 calls to police, including accusations of assaultive behavior.

Varso said Olson had "an extensive pattern of violent criminal behavior."

"I do not share this to vilify him," Varso said. "Steven needed intensive help. Instead, he was placed into a seriously flawed revolving-door system that processes people from jail to the streets, to services to the streets, back to jail and back to the streets.

"It is a system that relies upon a person to come to their own conclusion that they need serious help, and far too often does not end until that person finally commits a crime serious enough to be incarcerated or worse."

The footage also includes body-worn video from the first officer to respond to the initial 911 call about Olson hitting cars. That officer arrived to find an incoherent Olson, holding the crowbar and a squeegee, and repeatedly tells him to drop the bar. But Olson hurried off. The officer, who also was familiar with Olson, stayed to talk with witnesses. Varso said Olson's behavior was not threatening at that point.

Moments later, Moore encountered Olson in the street.

Toth said police did not find any damaged cars linked to the initial 911 call.

The last year has brought intensifying public scrutiny of police use of force across the country. About seven weeks ago, Escondido police said the department had codified policies to de-escalate tense situations.

In the video, Varso said his officers used force "in just .3 percent of all contacts" last year.

Moore was placed on administrative leave after the shooting, which is standard. Police said they expect he will be cleared to return to duty next week.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

(c)2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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