Chinedu Okobi was a Black man walking in a city where people of his race make up less than 1 percent of the population. And when he began acting oddly on an October afternoon in 2018, wandering into traffic on El Camino Real in Millbrae, sheriff's deputies quickly arrived.
Okobi, who wasn't armed, tried to walk away when an officer questioned him. Minutes later, the father and Morehouse College graduate who had battled with mental illness was dead, stunned seven times with a Taser by a San Mateo County deputy until his heart gave out. At one point, he is heard screaming on a video, “somebody help me,” before deputies pile on top of him.
“If officers had done that to a dog, people would be up in arms,” said Ebele Okobi, who has pushed in vain for someone to be held accountable for her brother's death. “He kept saying, ‘What did I do? Help me.' But there was no one.”
Many in the ultra-liberal Bay Area imagine the region lies a world away from Minneapolis or Atlanta or Louisville, where the killings of unarmed Black people have ignited a national reckoning over police violence and race. But a Bay Area News Group review of 110 law enforcement killings in the five-county Bay Area since 2015 tells a different story.
While Black residents make up only 7% of the combined population of Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, they accounted for a staggering 27% of those killed by police in the region since 2015, the news organization's analysis found.
Toxic mix, lethal consequences
About one out of five people killed by police — like Okobi — were not armed, the analysis found. And 40% of those who were unarmed were Black.
Overall, a majority of those killed were experiencing some kind of mental-health crisis.
Before the deadly encounters, there was no evidence that nearly 45% of those killed — including Okobi — were committing any kind of violent crime.
And those findings don't even include the Solano County city of Vallejo, which has been plagued by questionable police shootings of Black residents and is now being investigated by the state attorney general.
What they do clearly show is how the combination of race, mental illness and aggressive policing often fuel a toxic mix of misunderstandings with lethal consequences.
To be sure, a number of those killed by police were stone-cold “bad guys” who were threatening lives after killing others, including a San Jose police officer. Reviews of many of those cases show officers clearly under attack, risking their lives when a fatal outcome would have been difficult if not impossible to avoid.
But there were many examples that raised significant questions about officers' decisions — and district attorneys' overwhelming propensity to justify the fatal results. An ex-police officer-turned-sociology professor who reviewed a video last week of Okobi's death at this news organization's request called it “cops gone wild” and a travesty that the officers were neither disciplined nor criminally charged.
Like Okobi, Roy Nelson Jr. was an unarmed Black man with a history of schizophrenia, suffering a mental-health episode and committing no crime when his ex-wife called 911 to report he was hallucinating and needed psychiatric help. He was later found to have methamphetamine in his system.
“I can't breathe,” Nelson insists on a video recorded by Hayward police after a group of officers pulled him from a patrol car because he wouldn't stop kicking the door. The officers handcuff the 300-pound man, face down on the ground, then try to wrap him in a restraint similar to a straitjacket.
“I can't breathe,” he says again, in a plea that feels even more harrowing five years later, after George Floyd repeatedly uttered that same phrase and died under a police officer's knee in Minneapolis.
Roy Nelson died too. So did Rakeem Rucks, who also yelled, “I can't breathe,” while face down in the dirt as Antioch cops piled on top of him in 2015 after finding him in an altered state, high on methamphetamine. According to a lawsuit filed by Rucks' family, officers put their knees on his neck as he struggled until his death.
None of the officers in any of those deadly encounters were ever disciplined.
In fact, there is one constant in each of the 110 cases examined: Not a single officer who killed someone in the Bay Area in the past 5 1/2 years has been prosecuted. Only once has a police chief fired an officer.
Equating race with danger?
Over the last month, the streets of the Bay Area have come alive with protests over Floyd's death. But the stark facts about who dies at the hands of police in the Bay Area suggest there is plenty right here to fuel the debate over policing and racial justice.
Perhaps no one knows that better than Oakland civil rights lawyer John Burris.
“Historically police officers in this area are much quicker to shoot against African-Americans than they are others,” said Burris, who has sued police departments in California hundreds of times and has represented the families of Okobi, Nelson and Rucks in excessive-force lawsuits.
“The part that's most troubling to me,” Burris said, is “the lack of respect for Black lives and consideration for the collateral damage it causes.”
Lawyer John Burris, right, speaks to media about Chinedu Okobi's deadly encounter with San Mateo County deputies. Burris filed an excessive force lawsuit against the Sheriff's department on behalf of Okobi's mother, Amaka Okobi, left, and her daughter, Ebele Okobi, center. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
The research is clear — race matters. Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia University law professor, recently co-wrote a paper based on thousands of cases that found police in the U.S. are more than twice as likely to shoot Black people than people of other races.
“It doesn't matter if they are armed or unarmed, or if they are in a mental health crisis or not. Or if they are neither armed nor mentally ill. Regardless of the circumstances, regardless of whether they are standing still, whether they are attacking, or withdrawing, Black people are always going to be more likely to be shot,” Fagan said in an interview.
“We don't know if (the reason) is implicit bias,” he said. What is clear, he said, is that “police equate race with danger.”
Alice Huffman, president of the California and Hawaii NAACP, said Black people know why.
“We can't pin it on racism, but we know it is,” she said. Law enforcement investigations of police killings are often “half-assed and not on point,” and when racist tactics or cops are exposed, “it's because someone is already dead.”
Nikki Romans sees it differently. Her late husband, Sgt. Ervin Romans, was one of four Oakland police officers killed in March 2009 by an ex-convict on the deadliest day for law enforcement in the city's history.
“I hate that they are putting the stigma on all these officers. There's Black officers who have been in shootings,” said Romans, whose father was Black and mother is white. She makes a point of never mentioning the race of Lovelle Mixon, her husband's killer, who was Black.
“Any time I've spoken about the guy who killed my husband, anytime I would bring it up, I always said it was a bad person,” she said. “A bad person killed my husband that day.”
The funeral for Nikki Roman's husband, Ervin Romans, and the three other slain officers was held at the Oracle Arena on March 27, 2009. The other officers killed by Lovelle Mixon were Mark Dunakin, Dan Sakai and John Hege. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group file photo))