SMC sheriff’s deputies cleared of criminal charges in Taser death

in Featured/Headline and

Five San Mateo County Sheriff’s deputies will not face criminal charges in the Taser death of an unarmed man in Millbrae last year, San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said Friday.

The district attorney posted a video of the high-profile incident on his website, along with a letter detailing findings from his office’s investigation into the Oct. 3, 2018 incident that he sent to San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Balanos.

“While the loss of life following contact with law enforcement is a tragic and traumatic event for all those involved, we have determined based upon a review of all the evidence that the use of force by the deputies under the circumstances encountered by them on that date was lawful pursuant to the provisions of California Penal Code Section 196,” Wagstaffe said.

Chinedu Okobi died following the physical struggle with five deputies during which one of the deputies deployed a Taser seven times, four times successfully, in the 1400 block of El Camino Real in Millbrae. The incident gained notoriety after Okobi’s sister, Facebook’s public policy director for Africa, charged the sheriff’s office with lying after she watched the video.

The incident, along with two other Taser-related deaths in San Mateo County last year, prompted the county Board of Supervisors to call for further study on the electroshock weapons.

John Burris, attorney for Okobi’s family, said today he vows to pursue a civil case on behalf of the family.

At about 1 p.m. on the day of the incident, according to the DA’s report and video evidence, Okobi had been walking erratically in and out of traffic and failed to comply when patrolling Deputy Joshua Wang approached him in his patrol car.

Deputy Alyssa Lorenzatti responded and approached Okobi on foot while he was on the sidewalk. He resisted her attempt to physically detain him, and a struggle ensued involving Deputies Wang, Lorenzatti, John DeMartini, Bryan Watt and Sgt. David Weidner.

During the struggle, Deputy Wang warned Okobi, described by deputies as overpowering at 6-2 and 333 pounds, that he would Tase him. Okobi continued to resist detainment, and Deputy Wang deployed his Taser as Okobi was inching out into the street.

Okobi writhed in pain on the ground from the Taser prongs, demanding that officers “get them off me.” Okobi broke free from the officers and tried to get up and run when Deputy Wang tased him again. Okobi fell to the ground but then got up and began to flee officers by crossing the street. The officers pursued Okobi on foot. Deputy Wang abandoned the Taser after a seventh attempt, believing it was ineffective. Then Okobi punched Deputy Wang, prompting deputies to tackle and finally subdue Okobi.

Okobi was also struck by a baton to no avail and pepper-sprayed during the struggle. Once subdued, paramedics took over. They reported that Okobi went into cardiac arrest before he was moved to the ambulance. Despite life-saving efforts, he was pronounced deceased at Mills Peninsula Hospital at 2:17 p.m., the DA’s report states.

An autopsy determined Okobi died from “cardiac arrest following physical exertion, physical restraint, and recent electro-muscular disruption.” Okobi suffered from cardiovascular disease and had an enlarged heart, which was a significant contributing factor in his death but not related to the immediate cause of death, the DA’s report said.

The toxicology report indicated Okobi was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of his death.

The DA concluded that Deputy Wang was right in confronting Okobi, as he was posing a danger to himself and others. All five law enforcement officers “did the best they could with the tools, training and experience they possessed at the time,” according to Jeffrey Marti, a use of force expert hired by the DA to examine the case.

“They did not employ deadly force, could not have foreseen that their use of non-lethal force would lead to Mr. Okobi’s death, and mindful of the potential risks, they immediately sought to provide Mr. Okobi with medical attention even before he was fully restrained,” Wagstaffe concluded in his report.

He added, “Consequently, having found that the involved deputies acted lawfully here, we have concluded our investigation and will take no further action.”

File photo of DA Steve Wagstaffe courtesy of the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office