Family of Black Man Who Died During Arrest Sues San Mateo County

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Ebele Okobi said she hopes a lawsuit filed Friday over the death of her brother, Chinedu Okobi, will force policy change in the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office. (Julie Small/KQED)

Updated 6 p.m. Friday

The mother of an African American man is alleging in a federal lawsuit filed Friday that racial profiling and repeated taser use by San Mateo County sheriff’s deputies led to the wrongful death of her son last October in Millbrae.

The fatal struggle between five sheriff deputies and Chinedu Okobi Oct. 3 lasted mere minutes, but by the time the unarmed 36-year-old was in handcuffs he had been tased three times, hit with a baton, pepper-sprayed and sat on.


Moments later, Okobi became unresponsive. He was taken to a local hospital and pronounced dead later that day.

San Mateo County’s district attorney called the incident tragic but not criminal in March and declined to charge the deputies involved.

The Sheriff's Office is still investigating the incident.

“My brother, Chinedu Okobi, was electrocuted to death,” Ebele Okobi wrote in a Facebook post Friday. “District Attorney (Steve) Wagstaffe’s refusal to charge any of the officers, and Sheriff (Carlos) Bolanos’ refusal to properly investigate the killing or to impose any sanctions at all, shock the conscience.”

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At a press conference later that day, Ebele told reporters, “This should not stand. It shouldn't be that a human being can be violently killed, can be tortured to death, with absolute impunity."

Warren Metlitzky, an attorney for the county acknowledged, "the tragic nature" of Okobi's death in an emailed statement. He added that "the county intends to defend itself in federal court against these claims."

Civil rights attorney Adante Pointer represents Okobi’s mother, Maureen.

“It's pretty consistent that officers are not disciplined,” Pointer said. “They don't face any type of real backlash as it relates to employment, and very few are ever prosecuted in any way.”

Pointer said Okobi, like many other families, turned to the court to ensure accountability and to learn how their loved ones died.

In the complaint, attorneys allege that San Mateo County sheriff's deputies unlawfully detained and killed Okobi based on racial profiling.

Chinedu, a 300-pound African American man from Redwood City, was walking down a sidewalk on a busy street in downtown Millbrae in the afternoon when a deputy spotted him.

Sheriff's Deputy Joshua Wang told investigators with the district attorney’s office that when Okobi jaywalked across that street, he followed him in his car. Dash-cam video of the incident recorded Wang yelling out the window to Okobi to “hold up for a minute” and talk. When Okobi walked away, Wang called for backup.

Video from the patrol car shows that when Deputy Alyssa Lorenzatti first approached Okobi on foot, he held up his hands. When she put a hand on his shoulder, he shrugged it off and turned away from her. That’s when other deputies rushed in to grab him. During the following struggle, Wang shot him with a taser and he fell. When he tried to flee again one deputy pepper-sprayed him, and another hit him with a baton.

Policing and Deadly Force

The district attorney found no evidence that Okobi “immediately assaulted” a deputy, as the sheriff’s office stated in a Oct. 3 press release about the incident.

Dashboard footage of the struggle showed a visibly frightened and confused Okobi imploring,“What did I do?” and screaming after he was tased, “Somebody help me!”

The investigation by District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe determined that Wang shot his taser seven times during the struggle. Four of the discharges actually shocked Okobi, with one of those delivering only a partial electric charge. The county coroner concluded that the tasing contributed to his death. Wagstaffe found the deputies’ use of force reasonable, given Okobi’s strength and size and the threat he posed to public safety if he continued to cross the busy street.

Wagstaffe’s investigation noted that Wang’s face was cut during the struggle, likely when Okobi punched him, requiring five stitches.

Okobi’s attorneys are suing deputies individually and as employees of the sheriff’s office.

They are also suing the sheriff’s office for an alleged pattern of making arrests without sufficient cause and using excessive force, including improper use of tasers.

The lawsuit claims the sheriff and other county officials failed in their duty to properly supervise and train deputies in taser use.

“The taser trigger was pulled seven times,” Pointer said. “That to us is indicative that the deputies are not properly trained because the taser company would tell you that's more times than any person should be tased.”

The lawsuit seeks money damages, but Okobi’s sister said she hopes it will also lead to systemic change in the use of force by law enforcement that will spare other families from suffering.

"Think about how unimaginable it would be to lose your child in this way," Ebele said, as her mother sobbed, "and not only to lose your child but to be told that the death of your child doesn't matter."