District Attorney’s office does not automatically investigate all in-custody deaths

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Michael Ball/File

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The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office has not investigated six deaths since 2010, all of which occurred in-police custody.

Unlike San Francisco County and Santa Clara County, Alameda County District Attorney’s office does not mandate investigations into in custody deaths unless the individual was shot by police, as first reported by Mercury News.

While current protocol dictates that only officer-involved shootings be investigated by the office, the policy is currently under review, according to an email from DA spokesperson Rebecca Richardson.

“I believe there have been many incidents that should have led to District Attorney O’Malley to rethink her policy,” said Ana Zamora, Criminal Justice Policy Director of American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

The death of transgender Berkeley resident Kayla Moore in 2013 while in police custody — the only case of the six in-custody deaths that occurred in Berkeley — sparked public outrage, leading to protests from LGBT activists and community members. Moore’s father, Arthur Moore, consequently sued the city of Berkeley and several Berkeley police officers for wrongful death.

His lawyer, Adante Pointer, said that the lack of oversight by the district attorney’s office meant the only initial investigation into Moore’s death was conducted by the police department itself.

“Any situation where the police are policing themselves is not a situation that allows for independent investigation,” Pointer said. “There is an inherent bias that shields police from true scrutiny.”

After the release of the coroner’s report three months later, the Berkeley Police Review Commission, or PRC, conducted an investigation into Moore’s death which found that one police officer’s handling of Moore’s case had violated guidelines for proper police procedure.

By the time the PRC submitted its investigation’s findings, however, more than a year had passed since the incident, disallowing the chief of police from pursuing disciplinary actions. In order to be able to discipline an officer, the commission would have had to submit its findings within 120 days of Moore’s death.

“If (the chief) is not waiting until our process is done (even though) our recommendation is given before he makes his decision, then what’s the point?” Perezvelez said, referring to the PRC investigation process.

In another case of in-custody death, Martin Harrison was tazed and received several blows to the head and neck while at Santa Rita Jail before dying, according to the family’s attorney Michael Haddad. In Harrison’s case, like Moore’s, there was no district attorney office investigation.

“There was an in-custody death investigation by the jail which exonerated all deputies. …It was, in my opinion, a kind of cover up investigation,” Haddad said. “Any investigation within a department of your own people is highly unlikely to be meaningful.”

Zamora said there needs to be a new system that “ensures oversight, accountability, and transparency” for in-custody death investigations. Traditional systems of police oversight and accountability were lacking regarding the six in-custody death cases since 2010, according to James Chanin, a civil rights lawyer in Alameda County.

“None of those systems (to investigate in-custody deaths) are available in Alameda County in any kind of coordinated way, and so these cases fall through the cracks,” Chanin said. “People lose their lives and no one is looking.”

Anderson Lanham is the lead crime & courts reporter. Contact her at [email protected].