San Mateo County to hold a public forum on Tasers following three deaths

An Axon Taser
An Axon Taser

In the wake of three deaths involving Taser stun gun deployments by law enforcement officers in San Mateo County this year, the county Board of Supervisors voted to hold an upcoming public forum on Tasers.

“I think it would be helpful to just talk about Tasers,” Supervisor Dave Pine, who called for the hearing, said at Tuesday’s (Dec. 18) meeting.

He said it would “provide the public the opportunity to share their opinions” with the county counsel’s office and the sheriff’s office.

The three deaths involving different law enforcement agencies — particularly the death of Chinedu Okobi, who was Tased by five San Mateo County sheriff’s deputies on Oct. 3 — have prompted calls for a moratorium on the use of Tasers in the county.

While the board has now committed to hosting a public discussion about Tasers at some point, it can’t impose such a moratorium and has little power to affect how Tasers will be used in the county. The sheriff’s office sets policy on its own, as do local city police departments.

The board does set the sheriff’s budget, however, and approved a contract earlier this month to purchase body-worn cameras from Axon, the same company that makes Tasers. Until now, San Mateo County sheriff’s deputies have not worn body cameras.

For providing 537 cameras and an online evidence management system, the county will pay Axon $3.9 million over the next four years. The first two years of the contract will be funded through asset forfeiture, Sheriff Carlos Bolanos said at the board’s Dec. 4 meeting. The contract also allows the sheriff to amend it without review, provided it doesn’t change its cost more than $100,000.

Okobi’s sister Ebele Okobi, Facebook’s public policy director for Africa, attended the board meeting on Dec. 4 and was critical of the new contract with Axon, suggesting that $100,000 could be used for the purchase of more Tasers.

“That a county in which three unarmed citizens were killed with supposedly non-lethal tasers within 10 months would allow a resolution giving the Sheriff a $100,000 blank check for the purchase of more tasers, before its coroner has even returned a report on the last killing-it certainly feels like defeat,” Ebele Okobi wrote after the meeting.

However, the sheriff’s office does not need to get board approval to purchase Tasers. In fact, it has already purchased at least 15 Tasers from Axon this year for $18,720.78, according to invoices obtained by Bay City News through a public records request.

Video of Chinedu Okobi’s death has not been made public, but Ebele Okobi was allowed to view dash cam and citizen video and has said that the initial sheriff’s office account is inconsistent with what she saw in the videos.

The sheriff’s office said that Chinedu Okobi was “running in and out of traffic” on El Camino Real in Millbrae, but his sister says he was walking on the sidewalk when a deputy noticed him while driving and shouted at him. The sheriff’s office says that he then attacked a deputy, but Ebele Okobi says he put his hands in the air and the deputies grabbed him. He tried to run and that’s when he was Tased, she said.

San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe is conducting the investigation into Chinedu Okobi’s death and has said he expects to complete his investigation in January or February and then will release the video.

In April, Wagstaffe declined to charge a Daly City police officer who used a Taser on Warren Ragudo on Jan. 16. Ragudo was apparently on drugs and being held down by his father and uncle. Officer Bruce Perdomo deployed a Taser on Ragudo’s lower back and he stopped breathing shortly after.

In November, Wagstaffe declined to charge four Redwood City police officers in connection with the death of 55-year-old Ramzi Saad on Aug. 13.

Wagstaffe said Saad had a history of mental illness, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, was acting erratically and pushed his mother down in the front yard.

Wagstaffe wrote that Saad punched one officer, who used a Taser on him, and when other officers arrived they wrestled him to the ground and pinned him, and he stopped breathing.

Dozens of speakers attended the Board of Supervisors’ Dec. 4 meeting to call for the release of video in Chinedu Okobi’s death and called for reforms to the way officers use force, particularly in situations involving people with mental illnesses. Many called for improved crisis intervention training.

On Tuesday, Pine said that he hopes the upcoming public forum on Tasers will shed some light on what type of training is necessary for Tasers and the best was for officers to handle people having mental health crises.

Supervisor Don Horsley, who was San Mateo County sheriff from 1993 to 2007 and whose son is now a sheriff’s deputy, supported the forum.

“Having been in law enforcement for 35 years, most of the cases that I ran into people had some mental health crisis,” Horsley said. “Maybe these public hearings will give us some ideas about something else that we can do to avoid tragedies in the future.”

A date and time for the public forum has not yet been scheduled.

— Bay City News