Jurisprudence

A Facebook Executive Moved to London to Protect Her Son From Police Brutality. Then Her Brother Was Tased to Death by Police.

Chinedu Okobi with his daughter Christina
Chinedu Okobi with his daughter Christina in 2010.
Courtesy of Ebele Okobi.

When Ebele Okobi learned that her brother had died at the hands of police, her sense of shock conflicted with a feeling of inevitability. “I was both stunned and not stunned,” Ebele told me last week. “Police brutality against black people, and particularly against black men, is something that I’ve always worried about. There’s a reason we live in London.”

Four years ago, not long after her son was born, Ebele moved to London and began working as Facebook’s head of public policy for Africa. “I refused to raise my son in the U.S.,” Ebele said. In the United States, black people make up 13 percent of the population but 25 percent of people killed by police—a uniquely American problem unfamiliar to Londoners. In 2015, American police killed more people in the first 24 days of the year than England and Wales did in the previous 24 years. So to Ebele, the United States simply wasn’t the safest place for a mother to raise her black son.

But such a precaution could not protect her brother, Chinedu Okobi, a church-going poet and loving father whom Ebele affectionately described as a “gentle spirit.” On Oct. 3, Chinedu died after being tased multiple times by San Mateo County police. And while Chinedu joins the nearly 800 people killed by American police this year, his story is unique in its horror.

During a routine traffic stop, deputies approached Chinedu, who police later said was “running in and out of traffic” on an active boulevard in Millbrae, California. According to his family, Chinedu may have been experiencing a psychological breakdown—an episode following ongoing battles with mental illness. As Ebele told USA Today, Chinedu had been previously diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and, at that time, might not have been using his medication.

According to John Burris, the lawyer representing the Okobi family, when Chinedu did not comply, five officers attempted to pin him against the ground. Soon after Chinedu evaded their grip, the officers’ response was swift and decisive—repeated tasing that left Chinedu lifeless against the asphalt.

Now as the San Mateo district attorney investigates the actions of the five officers involved—currently on paid leave—Ebele and her family are demanding to know why Chinedu was killed.

Burris has requested all available evidence, including the officers’ dash camera and alleged drone footage, be released immediately (ahead of California’s mandatory limit of 45 days). He is also calling for officials to release the full number of stun guns used against Chinedu, as recorded by the officers’ devices. Moreover, Burris has demanded a moratorium in California on the use of Tasers, which have been involved in three police killings in San Mateo County since December.

Even as she grieves the loss of her brother, Ebele wants to know how California police officers are prepared in the future to protect—not harm—a person in psychological distress. “If a person is ill, there should be protocols that help keep them safe,” she said. “Someone who is having a mental health crisis needs care and compassion—not to be Tasered to death.”

Chinedu’s death raises what seems to have become a perennial American question: Are police trained to serve people in crisis while effectively reaching resolution without violence? A closer look at police trainings across the United States reveals that de-escalation training is minimal and far from sufficient in protecting the lives of people like Chinedu.

A Department of Justice report from 2006, the most recent of its kind, examined the ways state and local agencies allocate time for basic police training. Whereas 110 hours were spent on firearms skills and self-defense, a mere eight hours were spent on nonviolent methods, such as de-escalation training and conflict management. The gap between training on violent and nonviolent means is stark.

Effective de-escalation trainings can teach police officers to employ peaceful interventions before resorting to violence. And in moments of police conflict, empathetic communication, tactical wait time, and patient negotiation may help defuse tension that borders on violence. More importantly, when coupled with crisis intervention training, it may help protect the lives of people suffering from mental illnesses.

In the past few years, police reformers have increasingly pushed for requiring de-escalation training—a concept that first gained traction after a 2015 report from President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The report strongly recommended de-escalation practices and encouraged officers to be “guardians,” not “warriors.” By contrast, President Donald Trump has supported efforts to further militarize police and recently promoted controversial stop-and-frisk policies.

In 2017, American Public Media reported that 34 states do not require de-escalation training for all officers. And of the 34 police officers who shot unarmed people in 2015 and 2016, more than half had received two or fewer hours of de-escalation training since at least 2012.

In 2015, California passed legislation seeking to mandate 15 hours of instruction on interactions with people with mental illnesses and other special needs and eight hours of crisis intervention training. A spokesperson from the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office shared that police officers can begin patrol without completing those requirements, but could not share how many hours of such training were completed by the five officers involved in the incident leading to Chinedu Okobi’s death.

Given low or nonexistent requirements at the state level, the decision to require de-escalation trainings is often left to America’s 12,000 local agencies—a number too staggering for alignment or accountability. But in response to Black Lives Matter protests in recent years, some cities have increased their training requirements and are already seeing improvements.

One video from Baltimore, which requires de-escalation trainings for its police officers, shows Officer Angel Villaronga calming a distressed man as he wielded a knife. Rather than resort to violence, Villaronga relied on empathy. “Just drop it right here, man. I can talk to you,” the officer said. “I’m 38 years old. I can relate to you, bro. There’s not a thing in this world that I have not dealt with that you probably have dealt with, OK? At the end of the day, I got kids to go home to.” That day, both Villaronga and the man he served went home alive.

Writer and civil rights activist Shaun King has called for increased de-escalation trainings and mental health support for police suspects in crisis. And for King, Chinedu’s death hits close to home. King was Chinedu’s student body president during their time at Morehouse College.

King nostalgically recalled Chinedu as a well-rounded student who could often be found recording music, speaking with others about his Christian faith, or repping his Bay Area home with unmatched pride. King diagnosed the incident that resulted in Chinedu’s death: “When officers showed up with bias, with lack of training, and preconceived notions of threats on their life, Chinedu found himself in the perfect storm of bias, incompetence, violence, and ignored mental health concerns all thrown into one.”

King argues that training is “woefully inadequate” and must extend beyond police officers. In cities like Chicago, 911 dispatchers are now trained to incorporate “triage questions” that help them pre-emptively identify mental illness, allowing police officers to be better prepared to intervene when they arrive at a scene. Going one step further, states like Colorado are piloting programs where mental health professionals are paired with police officers during 911 responses and routine patrols.

While police officers often rely on Tasers as nonlethal weapons, a recent investigative report from Reuters showed just how deadly they can be. Since 2000, more than 1,042 people have died following encounters with law enforcement where Tasers were employed. And of the people whose race was identifiable by Reuters, 332 were black—32 percent of those killed. Further, roughly 25 percent of those who died showed signs of mental illness, emotional stress, or a neurological disorder. So as a black man in need of mental support, Chinedu was doubly at risk.

As the investigation of the five police officers involved continues, Ebele continues to fight alongside her family, friends, and colleagues to honor the life of her brother. When asked what she wishes the police officers knew before tasing Chinedu to death, Ebele replied, “My brother was a human being who needed help. Black people are human beings, and they’re entitled to the same dignity white people are entitled to.” Unless the approach—and tools—of law enforcement in this country changes, black families like Ebele’s will continue to bear the greatest cost of police doing what they’re trained to do.