California police are lying about the beating and taser death of a 36-year-old black man in October, his sister wrote Sunday after being shown videos from the scene.
Chinedu Okobi’s death at police hands was portrayed as a tragic but unavoidable accident in the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office’s press release on October 3, the same day he was killed. Okobi “immediately assaulted” an officer who had tried to engage him out of concern for the man’s safety as he ran in and out of traffic, the police said then.
Though law enforcement’s initial official account of a critical incident tends to carry immense weight with the public, the invocation of assault on an officer should be a red flag for neutral observers trying to discern truth. Assault on a peace officer is among the most widely misused charges cops levy to punish so-called “contempt of cop” offenses — in essence the criminalization of back-talk or perceived disrespect.
Family members have now been shown videos capturing both the officers’ initial interaction with Okobi and the moments of his death.
“[W]e watched my little brother getting tortured to death in broad daylight while he begged ‘Someone, please help me!’ and cried out ‘What did I do?'” Ebele Okobi wrote.
One video recorded by a police vehicle dashboard camera suggests officers are lying about having approached him because he was behaving erratically or dangerously, she wrote. The dash cam captures Okobi “walking calmly down the sidewalk,” and records one deputy in the car saying “something like who is this guy, and then speed[ing] up to get alongside my brother,” she wrote.
“My brother was not walking in and out of traffic when the deputy noticed him. He was walking on the sidewalk, as people do,” she wrote. She says the dashboard camera shows no assault on a police officer at all, but rather that her brother responded verbally to the officer calling to him through the car window and then walked away.
The officer at that point “calls in a Code 3. A Code 3 means ‘Emergency, send back-up,” she wrote. “The deputy, within 2 minutes of having seen my brother, has dramatically escalated a situation that didn’t need to even be a situation and has then lied about being in danger and there being an emergency, which he knows will result in other deputies coming in hot.”
She goes on to describe in detail further video — either from the dash cam or a bystander’s cell phone, as the department does not require the use of body-worn cameras to record officer-civilian interactions — showing officers grabbing, beating, tasering, and eventually handcuffing her brother. His body is limp and unresponsive by the end, she says, and officers physically prop him up.
The officers never attempted CPR at the scene, Okobi wrote in the lengthy Facebook post.
Her brother is at least the third person to die this year alone after being tasered by police officers in San Mateo County. Wagstaffe’s team has not sought charges against any of the officers involved in the other taser deaths in his jurisdiction, according to local newspapers. They cleared officers of all wrongdoing in the most recent previous such incident, the August death of Ramzi Saad, earlier this month.
County D.A. Stephen Wagstaffe has refused to comment on the police statement or his own investigation into the death for weeks, saying that he will provide a full accounting of his findings no sooner than the week after Thanksgiving. Wagstaffe did not respond to ThinkProgress’s requests for comment Monday in light of a lengthy, detailed statement from Ebele Okobi, the dead man’s sister.
“The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office also wants these videos released to the public as soon as possible,” a spokeswoman for the agency told ThinkProgress by email late Monday, noting that the department understands videos are being withheld to avoid tainting witness recollections.
“It is always a tragedy anytime there is a loss of life,” the spokeswoman wrote. “We realize that nothing we can say or do will bring back Chinedu Okobi. Regardless, we too eagerly await the results of the investigation from the District Attorney’s office and the release of information to the public as quickly as possible.”
Okobi’s post demands Wagstaffe give the public the same videos she’s now seen, citing a new state law requiring such videos be released within 45 days. The law contains exceptions to the time limit, including where officials believe releasing the video would hamper an investigation. It has now been 50 days since Okobi’s brother was killed, but Wagstaffe has said his investigative report would take 8 to 10 weeks.
The direct contradiction of police claims in public didn’t shake Wagstaffe’s resolve to keep his findings close for now. But it did prompt him to give room for the possibility that the department is not being truthful in claiming Okobi’s death followed defensive actions in response to an assault on an officer.
“Wagstaffe said neither he nor anyone from his office had ever said Okobi attacked a deputy and said any correction of the record in those statements would have to be done by the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office,” CNN reported Sunday.
Okobi’s death has found more traction with the press and public than the average killing of an unarmed black man by police in part because his sister is a senior employee at Facebook. She moved her own immediate family to the U.K. years ago, she told The Guardian in October, because she feared that raising black children in the United States would subject them to both psychological and physical harm from a society that fears black men.
“I don’t have the mental or emotional fortitude to raise a son in America,” she told the British paper. “I don’t have it.”
Her brother stood 6 feet and 3 inches tall and weighed 330 pounds, Wagstaffe said. Police officers — like everyone else — have been shown in research studies to associate black people of any size with a greater tendency to violence. The physical stature of black men and women killed by police is often cited by authorities to defend the killing of unarmed African-Americans in suspicious circumstances.
The officers’ alleged failure to render any form of emergency assistance to the man they’d just beaten and electrocuted into a stupor is especially disturbing in Okobi’s account of the videos. Police routinely fail to render prompt first aid to civilians in duress even after they no longer pose any potential threat. In cases like Okobi’s, or the death of Eric Garner in New York four years ago, crucial minutes pass in which CPR could conceivably have made a difference to the outcome.
And by contrast, other cases where someone’s been shot and killed by officers have nonetheless seen other first responders attempt to staunch bleeding, deliver CPR, and otherwise cover the basics of lifesaving — even when it is clear such efforts are not going to revive an unresponsive person who’s suffered multiple gunshot wounds.
This article has been updated to include comment from the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office.