A message from Color of Change https://colorofchange.org/
A family is in mourning. Chinedu Okobi was a son, brother, father, and graduate of Morehouse College. On October 3rd, the 36-year old Nigerian-American went into cardiac arrest and died after being tackled and tased to death by five sheriff’s deputies in Millbrae, California. The tragic event all started when five deputies — John DeMartini, Alyssa Lorenzatti, Joshua Wang, Bryan Watt, and Sargeant. David Weidner cornered Chinedu who was walking in and out of traffic on a busy street.1 The sheriff’s office claims Chinedu “immediately assaulted” one of the deputies.2 But a cell phone video from a witness shows the officers beating Chinedu and tasing him on the ground as he shouted: “What have I done?”3
To make matters worse, San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe is releasing very few details and is putting the blame on Chinedu. DA Wagstaffe told reporters that Chinedu was 6’3 tall and weighed 330 pounds–insinuating that he was inherently dangerous.4 But Chinedu was assaulted and killed by five deputies. Already DA Wagstaffe is refusing to give information or video footage — and dragging the investigation out. Wagstaffe says the investigation will likely take eight to ten weeks.5 We cannot let this district attorney think he can sweep all of this under the rug. One of Wagstaffe’s major roles as an elected prosecutor is to hold police accountable for these despicable actions. That is why together with Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), we’re calling on San Mateo District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe to charge the officers for the murder of Chinedu Okobi.
Chinedu’s life and story matters. To his family and community, he was a kind, loving, and a talented poet. He also struggled with mental health issues. People with mental health challenges are the most vulnerable to be targeted for use of deadly force by police.According to a recent study by the Treatment Advocacy Center, people with untreated mental illness were sixteen times more likely to be killed during a police encounter.6
In the summer of 2017 in Seattle, Washington, a young pregnant Black woman, Charleena Lyles, experienced a mental health crisis and was shot and killed by police in front of her children at the doorstep of her home.7 Law enforcement cannot be the main intervention point for people struggling with mental health. We have to change the way we respond to moments like the ones that led to Chinedu’s death and that starts with holding the officers responsible.
So far, all five deputies are still employed with San Mateo County Sheriff’s department and receiving pay, while the investigation is ongoing. Time and time again officers kill our people, continue to collect a paycheck and hide behind their badge with no consequences. Just recently, the police officer, Timothy Loehmann, who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio four years ago was hired by another police department in a small town in Ohio.8
The same thing happened with another Tulsa, Oklahoma police officer, Betty Shelby, who shot and killed Terence Crutcher. She was found not guilty of felony manslaughter in May 2017.9 The jury questioned her judgment as a police officer yet she was hired by the Rogers County Sheriff and now is a CLEET-certified instructor training police officers how to mitigate any impact that killing Black people may have on their lives.
Things are starting to shift as Black communities have increased our demands for change in the justice system. Over the last several years Color Of Change has pursued a strategy of increasing pressure on District Attorneys. Locally elected prosecutors have the power to convict violent police officers and keep them off of our streets. And Color Of Change members have taken hundreds of thousands of actions in dozens of campaigns calling on district attorneys to change our justice system and hold police accountable.
The strategy is working as more elected prosecutors and candidates are taking a stance on police accountability. We are starting to see signs of progress. Just in the last few months, the officers in the cases of Laquan McDonald and Jordan Edwards, young Black men killed by police in Chicago and Dallas, were convicted for their deaths. These were both moments when people across our country put the spotlight on what happened and demanded that local prosecutors take action. We can do the same for Chinedu and his family.
Since I have been leading Color Of Change’s criminal justice work, we’ve run dozens of campaigns demanding justice after a Black person was killed by police–but this one hits particularly close to home for me. Chinedu and I were in the same class and graduated together from Morehouse College, a small liberal arts school and the only historically Black men’s college. Morehouse Men are a tight-knit brotherhood. I didn’t know Chinedu but I’m learning more about him now from some of our classmates. He deserved better than this.
It is heartbreaking to think that he was taken from his family and community in such a senseless and irresponsible way, but we can get some justice for them by holding the individuals responsible for his death accountable. District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe has one job — remove those five deputies from the force and charge them with killing Chinedu Okobi.