Four California cops involved in the death of a mentally ill man in August were found to have acted within department policy and will not be reprimanded, according to newly released records of an internal investigation.
Despite the investigation barely concluding in May, San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe told the officers he would not press charges just days after Ramzi Saad died due to how officers handled his mental illness.
Saad’s neighbor called 911 after he went to their house to say, “My mother is dead and they’re killing us,” according to the letter Wagstaffe wrote to Redwood City police Chief Dan Mulholland in November.
Saad had been in a bad mood all day, refused to take his medication and allegedly pushed his mother down.
Officer Oscar Poveda was the first to arrive and tried to deescalate the situation. Poveda asked what was happening, but Saad continued his version of the story saying, “They’re trying to kill me.”
Poveda was able to calm Saad down, but he suddenly became skeptical of the cop’s intentions.
“You wanna pull your gun and shoot me, don’t you?” he questioned.
A gun did not kill Saad that night, but he was the third mentally ill person to die that year at the hands of poorly trained police officers using tasers in San Mateo County.
Saad grew incredulous of Poveda and punched him, according to prosecutors. Poveda tried to tase Saad four times but gave up on the device after it kept malfunctioning and he continued to fight back. Poveda managed to handcuff Saad, then three other officers took over the attempt to subdue him.
While Saad was on his stomach, Officer Di Bona pinned his legs toward his back. Officer Cydzki put his knee between Saad’s shoulder blades and Officer Simmons held onto his handcuffed arms. After Saad seemed to calm down, the cops relieved some of their weight off his body.
Moments later, Saad stopped breathing. Paramedics who were on standby as the cops fought with Saad were unable to revive him.
On Aug. 16, three days after Saad died, an autopsy concluded his cause of death was “a result of cardiac arrest occurring during physical exertion, physical restraint and tasering.”
Four days later, before an investigation had been concluded, the district attorney assured the officers involved he would not prosecute them.
Wagstaffe’s office completed an independent investigation and informed the Redwood Police Department on Nov. 2 their officers had acted within policy.
“The use of force by the four officers which contributed to the death of Mr. Saad was justifiable pursuant to California Penal Code section 196,” District Attorney Inspector Rick Decker said.
A second and separate internal investigation headed by the Redwood Police Department was completed in May, except their conclusions were nearly a word-for-word replica of Wagstaffe’s letter to them from November.
“The statement was provided to a DA inspector, and we didn’t need to go and recreate that statement in a different way,” Redwood City police Deputy Chief Gary Kirby said.
He assured there were still separate analyzed information presented, but internal affairs investigators were able to sit in on and ask questions during interviews district attorney investigators held for their review of Saad’s death.
Chinedu Okobi died two months after Saad because multiple officers tased him for allegedly walking in and out of traffic. He had a psychotic break early in life, but Criminal Justice Reporter Julie Smalls said Okobi’s family confirmed he was medicated and stabilized.
According to Okobi’s sister, the cops were all shouting at Okobi at the same time while he was being electrocuted, as he screamed, “what did I do? What did I do?” He was pronounced dead at the hospital Okobi was sent to when the cops noticed he was no longer breathing.
Ebele Okobi said video footage obtained through surveillance videos and police dashboard cameras do not corroborate the cops’ version of how her brother died.
She said footage showed her brother walking on the sidewalk when a deputy stopped Okobi to question him. After saying something inaudible, Okobi crossed the street and the cop called for backup. She said footage never showed Okobi assaulting any officer. These videos have not been released to the public, other than Okobi’s family.
Wagstaffe announced he chose not to prosecute any of the officers who tased Okobi to death in March.
Saad and Okobi’s deaths, along with a call for action from Kristen Hart, the wife of the third person with mental health issues who died after confronting Redwood City police last year, and pressure from the public, prompted the department to issue cops with body cameras and train them with new crisis intervention methods. The department says the cameras and training will be implemented by sometime next year.
The only footage from Kyle Hart’s death was captured on a neighbor’s cellphone that partially recorded what happened.
Hart called the cops in December to help with her husband’s suicide attempt after he had a bad reaction to his anxiety medication. Instead of helping, “shots were fired within a minute of police arrival. Officers did not attempt to de-escalate the situation or wait for the beanbag shotgun that arrived two minutes later,” Hart said on the GoFundMe page set up for her and her two children. Officer Leila Velez attempted to tase the husband first, but he did not get shocked.
“While the use of lethal force was deemed justified by the DA, the inadequacy of scene management and accessibility of other de-escalation options and equipment must be addressed,” she added.
Wagstaffe released a letter in March saying he would not prosecute Velez and Officer Roman Gomez, who waiting an entire 43 seconds since arriving on-scene to shoot Kyle Hart five times.
While Gomez was able to determine Hart, a man battling anxiety to the point of attempted suicide, needed to be shot within a minute of arrival, a retired Redwood City cop accused of kicking a woman in the chest was in a standoff with the police for over 17 hours, unscathed.
An unidentified woman called the cops on Aug. 9 to report she had been a victim of domestic violence at James McGee’s home. When they arrived at around 2 a.m., she was standing outside, but McGee refused to leave his house. Neighbors were required to evacuate their homes so police could surround the area.
From the comment section in the article Ex-cop walks out of jail after nearly 18 hour standoff with police, a user named Logan M. said they watched the scene unfold that day.
“…The SMC [San Mateo County] Sheriff brought in 2 mobile command centers, three armored vehicles including what looked to be an armored vehicle with a battering feature, a helicopter that circled for hours, a SWAT team, and at least 100 support staff and a crew suited up ready for a firefight in Fallujah,” they wrote. “This was an embarrassment: a waste of resources, money and only resulted in inconveniencing the neighbors… by one guy who should still be in jail.”
After hours of negotiations, police finally convinced McGee to leave his house. McGee was booked in jail on a single domestic violence charge but was able to post a $50,000 bail, likely only paying around $5,000 to be released.
Because the woman who made the initial 911 call changed her story of how the night unraveled several times, McGee was unable to be charged with domestic violence and pleaded no contest to resisting arrest. He was given a $638 fine and probation for the nearly 18-hour-long ordeal. Wagstaffe has advocated that these types of standoffs with police should carry the weight of a felony charge instead of a misdemeanor since it costs “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in overtime, he said.
According to Transparent California, a nonprofit site that reports how much public employees in California make, McGee made over $200,000 in 2013 – the last year he worked for the Redwood City Police Department.
Records of Saad’s case were released in accordance to California’s new police transparency law, Senate Bill 1421. The state’s congress recently passed another bill this month, the California Act to Save Lives, also known as AB 392. This bill requires cops to only use deadly force when necessary.
Before AB 392, officers have been able to use deadly force and possibly kill someone despite alternative methods to deescalate a situation being available. Officers will also be evaluated on whether they tried to deescalate a situation without using deadly force first.