There is a national, statewide, and local pattern of police using excessive force against people of color during routine encounters. The video and reports provided by the San Mateo County District Attorney related to the death of Chinedu Okobi in Millbrae on Oct. 3 have all the earmarks of racial profiling. If crossing the street made Okobi the object of police attention and attempted detention – one has to ask if Okobi was white, would the reaction have been the same? After officers made contact and tased him, Okobi’s agitation should have raised the question of a mental health issue. Yet the arresting officers instead decided he was under the influence of drugs and initiated aggressive detention techniques.
The decision by the district attorney not to prosecute the officers doesn’t erase the fact that racial profiling and unnecessary force led to Okobi’s death. The actions by the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office deprived Okobi of his fundamental constitutional rights. The deputies involved should be held accountable.
We must look at why these deputies were so fearful of an unarmed Black man. Statements made in the videos show that they assumed he was full of drugs. Toxicology reports disprove this assumption. The officers commented that Okobi had “super human strength” saying they “had to dogpile on him just to contain his strength.”
These comments are infected with racism and show that racial stereotypes motivated the officers’ decisions to create a conflict, and then continue to escalate the situation until Okobi lay dying in the street. Racially-biased policing undermines public safety and has disastrous impacts on people of color.
Police officers should be trained in de-escalation tactics, and force should be used as a last resort, not a first option. The San Mateo County Sherriff’s Office policies on Use of Force and Tasers are not in line with best practices. The department’s Use of Force policy doesn’t include de-escalation as a first option and does not emphasize that force should be used only when necessary. While the Board of Supervisors recently held a “study session” on taser use, only the sheriff can change the policies.
Okobi’s death proves once again that tasers are not non-lethal weapons. They are in fact highly dangerous and have accounted for over 1,000 deaths, according to a Reuters study. Tasers are disproportionately used against people of color and those with mental health issues. Tasing someone multiple times and piling on the person tased, as was the case with Okobi, is a recipe for disaster. Tasers should only be used when there is an immediate threat of serious physical harm, and after other less dangerous tactics are tried, such as de-escalation. Tasers should never be used simply to gain compliance with officers’ commands.