San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagestaff announced on March 1 that no criminal charges would be brought against the five San Mateo police officers involved in a fatal Taser encounter with 36-year-old Nigerian-American Chinedu Okobi, whose October death sparked protests and public outcry.
An unarmed Okobi was killed on Oct. 3 on the 1300 block of El Camino Real following a confrontation with police. Jeffrey Martin, the use-of-force expert contracted by the District Attorney’s office, said the officers had probable cause to arrest and use force against Okobi because he committed an offense and refused to comply with the officers. Okobi’s death was ruled a homicide by a coroner who conducted the autopsy.
However, the District Attorney’s office concluded that “based upon a review of all the evidence,” “the use of force by the deputies under the circumstances encountered by them on that date was lawful.”
Video footage released on March 1 by the District Attorney’s office shows a deputy approaching Okobi after he illegally crossed El Camino Real. Okobi attempted to evade the officer by repeatedly crossing the street illegally.
Roughly two minutes into the video and almost immediately after the deputy’s first interaction with Okobi, the deputy called for backup. Another police officer exited the vehicle and attempted to arrest Okobi while he was walking on the sidewalk. Okobi continued to resist, and two more officers arrived on the scene, restraining him and placing him under arrest.
After Okobi had successfully broken free of the three officers and attempted to flee, a fourth officer deployed a Taser, which brought Okobi to the ground. Okobi was tased twice more while lying on his back, flailing his arms and legs, and was repeatedly told to roll on to his stomach.
Okobi managed to get on his feet while officers attempted to handcuff him, and was stunned twice; however, only the first taser deployment was effective. Okobi got up again and walked towards the other side of the street, followed by the five officers who deployed Tasers two more times.
One officer swung his baton at Okobi, who then punched the officer in the face; the officers then tackled Okobi to the ground. Okobi went into cardiac arrest and passed away en route to the hospital.
Community member and activists convened at the site of Okobi’s death on El Camino Real shortly after the announcement of his death and held a rapid-response rally. Demonstrators included members of the organization Justice for Chinedu, the clergy and the Raging Grannies, an activist organization consisting primarily of grandmothers.
Gail Sredanovic, a member of the Raging Grannies, was disappointed — though not surprised — by the District Attorney’s decision.
“The fact that somebody ended up dead for the offense of jaywalking is really shocking and that it should just be swept under the rug is not good,” Sredanovic said. “It certainly looked like, if not outright murder, at the very least criminal negligence.”
Sredanovic is concerned that Tasers, which are considered nonlethal, are being used inappropriately by police officers, such as in cases where someone is tired and has been physically exerting themselves.
According to Wagstaffe, whose office is investigating the case, it is not easy to determine what role the Tasers played in Okobi’s death. There is also a different standard for an officer pulling the trigger of a gun in fear of life or great bodily injury, versus using a Taser.
“A Taser is not defined in California law as lethal force,” Wagstaffe told The New York Times. “The reality is it’s supposed to be the opposite. It’s supposed to be nonlethal force.”
At the same time, Wagstaffe maintained that an officer still needs a strong reason to deploy a Taser.
“It has to be because he is seeking to gain control of a person who is physically resisting them,” he said.
Sreedanovic maintains that Taser usage in the case of Okobi’s death violated proper Taser practice.
“They clearly were dealing with somebody who was distraught and clearly, by all the evidence and the training manual of the taser manufacturers, that was a prime instance where you were not supposed to use tasers,” she said.
Okobi’s death prompted public outcry regarding excessive use of force, tasers and racial profiling. In response, the county board of supervisors held a public study session on Tasers. Axon, a Taser manufacturer, presented at the meeting.
Axon bills its Taser as a “safer, more effective use of force” for law enforcement, estimating that its product, which is used by more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies in 107 countries, has saved 211,460 people from death or serious injury.
Okobi’s death is the third in San Mateo County resulting from Taser use since January of 2018. In January 2018, 34-year-old Warren Ragudo underwent cardiac arrest and died after he was stunned and restrained by police responding to a drug-related crisis.
Similarly, Ramzi Saad, 55, was killed by police responding to his mental health crisis. The officers involved in both cases were cleared of criminal charges, although the Ragudo family has since filed a lawsuit against the San Mateo police department.
Okobi, who graduated from Morehouse College with a degree in Business Administration, had been struggling with mental illness. In a Facebook post published on November, Okobi’s sister Ebele Okobi explained that Okobi’s mental health may have contributed to his behavior, though it in no way justified his death.
“I knew that my brother didn’t ‘attack’ or ‘assault’ deputies, but because of his mental illness, I believed it was possible that he might have been in crisis and acting erratically,” Ebele Okobi wrote. “None of that would have justified him being killed, but there isn’t even a reason, at all, that my brother was stopped.”
In light of the decision, some activists and community members, such as the Raging Grannies, have demanded that San Mateo institute a community police oversight committee, similar to the Community Correction and Law Enforcement Committee that Santa Clara County is in the process of implementing.
The nine-member Community Correction and Law Enforcement Committee will advise Santa Clara County’s new Office of Correction and Law Enforcement Monitoring. This office is responsible for monitoring of the County jails and law enforcement facilities.
While Tsegaye feels that this is a good step forward, he is skeptical that such a committee will be truly effective.
“I don’t have much faith in police or police oversight committees … they don’t have too much power,” Tsegaye said.
Moving forward, the Raging Grannies will focus on “listening to Justice for Chinedu and what they want to accomplish” as well as “follow through on legislative approach,” according to Sredanovic.
Contact Serena Debesai at sdebesai ‘at’ stanford.edu.