Chinedu Okobi at his high school graduation in 1999. (Courtesy Law Offices of John Burris/Okobi family.)

A series of Taser deaths leaves San Mateo County searching for answers

Four law enforcement deaths in 2018 have ignited debate on the Peninsula on the role of Tasers in policing and how officers should respond to mental health crises. A hearing on the issue is planned for Monday.

By Scott Morris
Bay City News Service

Chinedu Valentine Okobi, the 36-year-old son of Nigerian immigrants, was unarmed when he was stopped by a San Mateo County sheriff’s deputy in Millbrae on Oct. 3.

Okobi, who grew up in San Francisco, had been walking in the 1300 block of El Camino Real at about 1 p.m. that day. The interaction between Okobi and the deputy quickly turned violent and as more deputies arrived, at least one deployed a Taser stun gun. Okobi died from his injuries.

Aside from that, everything about what happened to Okobi is disputed. The sheriff’s office said in a statement that the deputy had been responding to reports that Okobi was “running in and out of traffic” and that he had immediately assaulted the deputy. Okobi was taken to a hospital, where he died, according to the sheriff’s office.

But Okobi’s sister, Ebele Okobi, who has seen videos of the encounter, publicly accused the sheriff’s office of lying. According to her, Chinedu Okobi was calmly walking down the street when a deputy sped alongside him, shouted at him and told him he needs to question him. Chinedu Okobi said something inaudible in the video and then walked to an intersection, looked for traffic, and crossed the street, according to his sister.

The deputy then called for backup, according to Ebele Okobi. He sped across the street and cut off Chinedu Okobi as another patrol car arrived. Chinedu Okobi dropped his bags and put his arms in the air. The deputies grabbed him, ripped off his jacket as he asked, “What’s wrong? What did I do?” according to his sister. Then one deputy used his Taser as Chinedu Okobi cried out in pain.

At one point, Chinedu Okobi tried to get up, but a deputy hit him with a baton, and they shocked him again, his sister wrote. He tried to run again, and they chased him, used pepper spray and shocked him again.

Ebele Okobi said that Sgt. David Weidner can be heard on the video saying, “Stay on top of him,” repeatedly, then someone shouted, “I see blood!” After that, Chinedu Okobi lies lifeless on the sidewalk.

The videos have not been publicly released. But Ebele Okobi, Facebook’s public policy director for Africa, published her account on Facebook, where it was widely shared and became national news.

San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe hired an independent expert to assist with his investigation into the incident and committed to publicly releasing the videos once the investigation is complete.

The county Board of Supervisors has called a public hearing on Tasers, scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday at the Hall of Justice at 400 County Center in Redwood City.

Okobi’s death was the third of four involving law enforcement and a Taser in San Mateo County in 2018. The previous two were in Redwood City and Daly City. In a news conference in October, the Okobi family’s attorney, Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris, called for a moratorium on Taser use in the county.

In December, a second person was killed by police in Redwood City, Kyle Hart, a teacher at Frank S. Greene Middle School in Palo Alto who was threatening to kill himself. Redwood City police officers also used a Taser on Hart before they shot him.

Four deaths by law enforcement officers is highly unusual in San Mateo County, which has a population smaller than San Francisco. According to Bay City News archives as well as databases maintained by the Guardian and the Washington Post, there were three deaths by police shootings in the county in 2017 and none in either 2015 or 2016.

There had not been a Taser-related death in the county since 2005, when Pacifica police officers Tased Gregory Saulsbury Jr. while he was already handcuffed, according to a Reuters database of deaths involving Tasers.

Each of the four deaths in 2018 involved mental illness. Hart had reportedly already attempted suicide before officers arrived. Okobi had a history of mental illness, according to his family.

Ramzi Saad, who was killed in a struggle with Redwood City police officers on Aug. 13, suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, according to the district attorney’s office. Warren Ragudo, who died after he was Tased by Daly City police officers on Jan. 16, had a history of mental illness and drug addiction.

Law enforcement agencies have struggled in recent years with how to respond to people suffering from mental health crises without resorting to lethal force.

As the county Board of Supervisors called for a hearing on Tasers at a December meeting, Supervisor Don Horsley, who was the county’s sheriff from 1993 to 2007 and whose son is now a sheriff’s deputy, said that the county has taken steps in recent years to avoid fatal law enforcement encounters with people suffering mental illness, including countywide crisis intervention training, hiring specially trained ambulance drivers, and adding new services.

“Having been in law enforcement for 35 years, most of the cases that I ran into people had some mental health crisis,” Horsley said. “Maybe these public hearings will give us some ideas about something else that we can do to avoid tragedies in the future.”

But civil rights advocates, including with the American Civil Liberties Union, have pointed out that Tasers are often incorrectly perceived as non-lethal weapons.

Tasers are distributed with seven pages of instructions and safety warnings, including that “some individuals may be particularly susceptible to the effects of [conducted energy weapon] use” like people suffering from “excited delirium, profound agitation, severe exhaustion, drug intoxication or chronic drug abuse, and/or over-exertion from physical struggle.” In these cases, Taser use “may cause or contribute to sudden death,” the manufacturer warns.

Alan Schlosser, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, called the warnings “chilling,” adding, “In my view is clearly an attempt by Taser to shift a liability from the company to the city.”

“In many people’s minds, Tasers are non-lethal weapons,” Schlosser said. “They’re much more dangerous than pepper spray and batons.”

In the past two years, officers in Redwood City have deployed Tasers 28 times, in Daly City 21 times and the sheriff’s office has used Tasers seven times. In most of those incidents, the suspect was not armed.

Aside from the four deaths, no one suffered serious injuries in the other deployments in the county over those two years, according to documents obtained from the three agencies through a public records request.

The X26 Taser was discontinued in 2014. Its manufacturer warned it was obsolete and lacked the safety features of newer models. San Mateo County sheriff’s deputies still use 225 X26 Tasers. (Public domain photo by U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Donald Hudson.)

Some Tasers are more dangerous than others. In 2014, Taser International, the company that produces Tasers and is now known as Axon, stopped selling the X26 model and recommended that agencies switch to using its X26P model, writing to the agencies that the X26P was “far superior in terms of safety features.”

Most of the Tasers that San Mateo County sheriff’s deputies are using are still the outdated X26 model. David Silberman, the chief deputy county counsel, said that the sheriff’s office has 225 X26 Tasers and about 100 X26P. He would not say which model of Taser the deputies who killed Chinedu Okobi were carrying, citing the ongoing district attorney’s office investigation.

Redwood City ordered 125 X26P Tasers in November, the first time the Police Department had replaced its Tasers since 2010, before the X26P was introduced and when the X26 was the most popular model of Taser, according to invoices for Taser purchases obtained through a public records request. The department did not respond to questions about whether it was aware of the higher safety risks of the X26 model.

Brothers Rick and Tom Smith founded Air Taser Inc. in 1993 to develop a new electroshock weapon that would not be classified as a firearm. Previous electroshock weapons had used gunpowder as a propellant. Taser introduced its first product, the Air Taser Model 34000, the following year.

In 1998, the company changed its name to Taser International and in 1999, it introduced a handgun-shaped Taser. The X26 model was first introduced in 2003. Within four years, it was used by 11,000 law enforcement agencies worldwide, according to Taser’s website.

Tasers work by discharging two electrical probes attached to wires and propelled via compressed air. The probes embed in skin and clothing, delivering a powerful electric charge that causes muscles to tightly contract, incapacitating the suspect.

The devices also can be used in “drive stun” mode, meaning that the probes are not fired and the weapon is used in close proximity. In drive stun mode, the purpose of a Taser is not to incapacitate a suspect but to gain compliance through pain.

While Tasers quickly became a standard law enforcement tool, they have remained controversial. In San Francisco, fierce opposition kept the city’s Police Commission from allowing officers to use Tasers until last year, despite pleas from the department for a decade.

Activists argued that Tasers were potentially lethal and used much more frequently than guns, not simply a substitute for deadly force.

In San Mateo County, Tasers were in use by all but two law enforcement agencies by 2011, when the county’s civil grand jury examined Taser use and policy countywide. Only East Palo Alto and Menlo Park did not use Tasers. (Menlo Park equipped officers with Tasers starting in 2013.)

The civil grand jury found that almost all of the agencies using Tasers in San Mateo County had policies that were drafted by Lexipol, a private for-profit company that provides ready-made police policies.

Only the sheriff’s office had an independent policy, which differed from the Lexipol policies by having a series of recommended steps to escalate force. The sheriff’s office’s policy had changed in 2010 to make Tasers a more serious use of force — recommending using flashlights or specialty impact munitions before Tasers. Only carotid holds — similar to a chokehold without closing the windpipe — or deadly force were considered more serious.

Lexipol policies, on the other hand, let officers choose from a variety of force options based on the officer’s judgment. The grand jury recommended that the sheriff’s office adopt the Lexipol policy instead.

The sheriff’s office did eventually implement a Lexipol-based policy, but retained much of the language from its old policy, including the recommended steps in use of force.

However, the sheriff’s office did incorporate Lexipol-drafted language stating that “nothing in this policy requires an officer to retreat or be exposed to possible physical injury before applying reasonable force.”

In reviewing the policy for the ACLU, Schlosser said that he found that aspect of the policy antithetical to employing de-escalation techniques, which would direct officers to create space and establish communication.

“Language like this comes, to me, from the 19th Century,” Schlosser said. “Don’t retreat, hold your ground.”

The events leading to the death of Warren Ragudo, a 34-year-old Daly City man, have also been disputed, particularly the extent that Ragudo struggled and whether he was handcuffed by the time the officers used a Taser.

A letter from Wagstaffe, the county district attorney, says that officers had only handcuffed one of Ragudo’s arms before using a Taser and reports that Ragudo’s father confirmed this in an interview. But a lawsuit later filed by the family alleges that Ragudo had already been restrained by the time he was Tased.

According to Wagstaffe’s letter, Ragudo’s sister first called 911 at about 11:20 p.m. on Jan. 16, 2018, and said that her brother was “on drugs,” “tripping out” and “freaking out.”

She said that Ragudo was trying to jump out of a window and was being restrained by his father and uncle. While heading to the home at 964 Brunswick St., the officers were warned that Ragudo was on parole, was a drug user, and had a history of resisting police officers.

The family’s lawsuit states that they had hoped the officers would place him on a psychiatric hold.

Ragudo’s father and uncle were still holding him down on the second floor of the house when the officers arrived. Officers Corey Shoopman and Nicholas McCarthy tried to control Ragudo.

Shoopman grabbed his left arm and McCarthy put his knee between Ragudo’s shoulder blades. Ragudo continued kicking and twisting, and Officer Bruce Perdomo tried to grab his legs, Wagstaffe wrote in his letter.

According to the family’s lawsuit, Ragudo never kicked or swung his arms at the officers and Shoopman and McCarthy got him into handcuffs. But Wagstaffe’s letter said that Ragudo nearly kicked Perdomo in the face and while Shoopman handcuffed Ragudo’s left wrist, McCarthy lost control of Ragudo’s right arm. Perdomo then Tased him using the drive stun mode in his lower back, trying to gain his compliance through pain.

After the Taser deployment, Ragudo stopped struggling. At first he was still breathing, according to Wagstaffe’s letter, but as Sgt. Sean Begley arrived with restraints, he put his hand on Ragudo’s chest and did not feel movement. The officers attempted to revive him but he was pronounced dead a short time later.

The family’s lawsuit alleges that Ragudo, who was pinned facedown, was already having trouble breathing and was growing quiet before he was Tased.

In addition to the allegations of wrongful death and assault, the lawsuit filed by Ragudo’s family alleges that Daly City police Chief Patrick Hensley failed to adequately draft policy and train officers on how to deal with people suffering from a mental health crisis.

And while the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office policies expressly forbid deputies from using a Taser on someone in handcuffs, Daly City’s policies do not, so even if Ragudo was handcuffed deputies would have been permitted to Tase him, so long as they perceived the force to be reasonable.

A new police transparency law, Senate Bill 1421, took effect in California this year and requires the disclosure of internal investigatory files in cases where officers’ use of force leads to serious injury or death. But Daly City would not release the officers’ personnel files regarding Ragudo, citing the pending litigation against the city.

Kyle Hart had already cut his throat and wrists by the time police arrived on Dec. 10. His wife had just given birth to their second child three days earlier and the family had moved into a modest two-bedroom house in Redwood City with a large yard and a white picket fence in April.

Hart, 33, taught social studies and English and Frank S. Greene Jr. Middle School in Palo Alto, where he was well-liked by colleagues, students and their families.

His wife, Kristin Hart, called 911 at 8:47 a.m. and said that Hart was trying to kill himself. Redwood City police officers arrived at the home at 450 Lincoln Ave. and found Kristin Hart outside covered in blood. She directed them to the backyard, where Kyle Hart was holding a butcher knife and bleeding from his self-inflicted wounds.

The officers, who the department says were trained in crisis intervention techniques, tried to get him to drop the knife but instead, he
started running towards the officers, according to a Redwood City police news release.

One officer used a Taser in an attempt to subdue him, but it didn’t work, and another officer, a 20-year veteran of the department who has not been identified, shot him.

Hart was taken to a hospital but died. His young family has had an outpouring of support and raised nearly $250,000 through a GoFundMe page. The district attorney’s office is still investigating the case.

Even Hart’s exact cause of death remains undetermined, whether it was a result of the gunshot or his self-inflicted wounds. Nor is it clear why the Taser was ineffective.

It’s also not clear exactly how the previous person killed in an encounter with Redwood City police officers last year died. Police used a Taser on Ramzi Saad twice, but, according to the district attorney’s office, he continued fighting officers, two of whom climbed on top of him and held him face-down on the ground as he struggled.

Saad, 55, suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. He lived at 523 Lanyard Drive with his 83-year-old mother, whom he allegedly pushed over before neighbors called police on Aug. 13.

Earlier that day, Saad had been in a “bad mood,” his mother told police, and had not taken his medication. His mother urged him to take it, but he refused, and at about 7 p.m., he grabbed his prescription bottles and walked out of the house.

Saad went to a neighbor’s house, and told him, “my mother is dead and they’re killing us,” according to the district attorney’s office. The neighbor knew that Saad suffered from mental health problems and tried to calm him down. He walked with Saad back to his own house, where his mother was outside.

Saad was shouting incoherently, then walked back into the house, put his medicine down, and said that he was never going to take his medicine again.

The neighbor started walking home, but Saad followed, so the neighbor turned around and brought him back again. When they got back, Saad, still agitated, pushed over his mother, causing her to hit her head. The neighbor called 911.

Redwood City police Officer Oscar Poveda was the first to arrive, and saw Saad, who is over 6 feet tall and weighed 273 pounds, angry and yelling at a group of people. Saad’s mother was still on the ground and some of the onlookers were yelling that Saad had pushed her. Poveda asked Saad what was going on and Saad responded, “they’re trying to kill me,” according to the district attorney’s office.

Poveda tried to calm Saad down by using crisis intervention techniques, according to the district attorney’s office, lowering his tone and asking Saad to sit down. Saad at first seemed to calm down, and said he wanted to go to the hospital, but suddenly Saad said, “You wanna pull out your gun and shoot me, don’t you?”

As Saad grew more agitated, Poveda pulled his Taser and hid it behind his back. He requested medical aid for Saad’s mother and told his sergeant that he intended to place Saad on a mental health hold.

Saad got up and swung at Poveda without warning, according to the district attorney’s office. Poveda deployed his Taser, and Saad fell to the ground on his stomach. Poveda told Saad to put his hands behind his back, then activated his Taser again, its probes still stuck in Saad. Saad picked up a piece of fruit that had fallen from a nearby tree and threw it at Poveda.

Poveda replaced his Taser cartridge and deployed it again. But the district attorney’s office found it was unclear if the probes struck Saad this time. Saad grabbed a brick off the ground, and Poveda tried to activate the Taser again.

Poveda felt a shock and dropped the Taser. Saad rolled onto his back and kicked at Poveda. After a struggle, Poveda was able to get Saad back onto his stomach and handcuff him. Officers Daniel Di Bona, Brian Simmons and Matthew Cydzik then arrived and Poveda, exhausted, walked away.

Di Bona grabbed Saad’s legs and put his weight on them. Cydzik put a knee between Saad’s shoulder blades, but did not use his full body weight, according to the district attorney’s office. Simmons got on top of Saad’s midsection and tried to hold Saad’s handcuffed arms steady. Saad then stopped fighting. Soon, he stopped breathing.

The district attorney’s office reviewed Saad’s death and on Nov. 1 declined to charge the four officers.

“Officer Poveda initially made use of the [crisis intervention technique] training in an effort to diffuse the situation, but the decedent’s aggressive conduct, including approaching and punching at the officer, motivated the use of the Taser, which is considered a non-lethal weapon,” Wagstaffe wrote in a letter to Redwood City police Chief Dan Mulholland. “Tragically, Mr. Saad went into cardiac arrest and died. This unfortunate result was not intended by the officers, nor could they have foreseen such a tragic outcome from the use of non-lethal force.”

Chinedu Valentine Okobi was born the day before Valentine’s Day in 1982. He was the youngest of five children born to two Nigerian immigrants in San Francisco. After he died, his sister wrote on Facebook, “he had irresistibly chubby cheeks when he was a baby, which was unfortunate because he clearly found the resulting cheek pinching entirely beneath his dignity.”

Okobi once had a promising future. He graduated with a degree in business administration in 2003 from Morehouse College in Atlanta, the historically black college where Martin Luther King Jr., Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson attended.

He had a daughter, whom his family said he was devoted to. But while he was studying to enter graduate school, he started having struggles with mental health.

“We struggled for years to get him the right diagnosis and medications, and we were so proud of him for creating a good and kind life despite his struggles with mental health,” his sister Ebele Okobi wrote.

Okobi’s death was surprising for many reasons. As the third death involving Tasers in San Mateo County last year, it was unprecedented. As the brother to a high-ranking Facebook employee with a broad platform, Okobi’s death drew more attention than many others under similar circumstances would.

The sheriff’s office’s use of Tasers has been infrequent in recent years, with only one incident in 2017 and six in 2018, including on Okobi.

None of the deputies involved in the Okobi incident had been sued for excessive force allegations previously, though the sheriff’s office paid about $2.5 million in civil rights claims between 2015 and 2017, according to public records.

That total was mainly due to a $2.15 million settlement for Richard Earl May, who was bitten by a police dog while helping a friend look for her cat in a construction site in Half Moon Bay.

Still, the sheriff’s office has been slow to adapt to the latest technology, including its Tasers, which it has been upgrading to the newer, safer, models.

In response to a public records request, the sheriff’s office was unable to find any purchase invoices prior to 2018, so the rate that it has been upgrading is unclear. The sheriff’s office will also be getting body cameras for the first time in June.

Because the sheriff’s office does not currently have body cameras, the video of Okobi’s death, which Wagstaffe has committed to releasing once his investigation is complete, is a piecemeal collection of dash camera footage from patrol cars, bystander cellphone videos and surveillance video.

As scrutiny mounted, Wagstaffe hired an independent expert to assist his office with the criminal investigation into Okobi’s death.

The consultant, Jeffrey Martin, is a former San Jose police sergeant who spent 26 years with the department. He earned a law degree in 2007 and has worked as a private consultant on training and internal affairs investigations since 2009. From 2009-2013, he also worked as a contractor for Lexipol, the company that authors policies for each law enforcement agency in San Mateo County.

Regardless of the outcome of Wagstaffe’s investigation, Okobi’s family will likely file a civil suit against the county. And the issues his death raises, whether Tasers are a safe and effective law enforcement tool and how police can best respond to people with mental illness, will rage on.

Chinedu Okobi at his high school graduation in 1999. (Courtesy Law Offices of John Burris/Okobi family.)

 

The X26 Taser was discontinued in 2014. Its manufacturer warned it was obsolete and lacked the safety features of newer models. San Mateo County sheriff's deputies still use 225 X26 Tasers. (Public domain photo by U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Donald Hudson.)

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