To honor Kayla Moore’s life, the city of Berkeley must get crisis response right

Elaine Chung/Staff

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On Feb. 12, 2013, six Berkeley police officers held Kayla Moore facedown on her futon as she struggled to breathe, resulting in her death, as alleged by Moore’s family in an ongoing lawsuit. A friend had called 911 to request a wellness check for Kayla, who had schizophrenia and was experiencing psychosis. As is typical in Berkeley, the city dispatched Berkeley officers rather than caring first responders. When the officers showed up, Kayla was in her apartment with her caregiver, getting ready to eat dinner.

In 2014, Moore’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Berkeley and Berkeley Police Department. The family’s case is a call to action for the city: Berkeley must fund non-police mental health crisis responses that abide by the Americans with Disabilities Act and are truly accessible for people with disabilities, people of color, trans people and all whose lives are at risk when police get involved. This action is long overdue.

As we write, the family’s trial was expected to finally be underway after four and half years. Instead, the trial date has been postponed, possibly indefinitely, spurred by a motion from the city’s lawyers.

BPD and the city continue to sidestep responsibility as they have since Kayla died. After her death, none of the officers faced any disciplinary actions. In October 2016, city lawyers convinced Judge Charles Breyer to grant the individual officers immunity and to toss out the family’s claims of excessive force and wrongful arrest. A compelling claim remains, however. The family argues that the city violated the ADA when BPD officers failed to modify their behavior to accommodate Kayla’s mental health disability.

It’s past time to take responsibility for Kayla’s death. But who defines how the city takes responsibility for its violence and negligence? Who should vision and animate the bones of accountability if not the communities most implicated and affected by this violence?

Too often, when the state defines the terms of accountability, we as a community are granted only palliative “solutions” – gratuitous policy changes, police trainings and financial settlements.

In an institutional structure where policies supposedly outline liability, cities and police departments consistently skirt accountability to their own policies, rendering those policies meaningless. At this very moment, the city is arguing that the family’s lawyers cannot cite BPD’s own ADA policy. The family’s lawyer is being instructed to prove that the policy’s suggested accommodations would have made a difference and prevented Kayla’s death. This sets a dangerous precedent, framing policy as optional rather than an immediately applicable directive.

Alongside policies, training is lauded as a solution. Here in Berkeley, taxpayer dollars and bloated budgets fund BPD crisis intervention trainings, but officials rarely mention that the training is a mere eight hours. And, even with well-written policy and accompanying trainings, police notoriously pull the “in the heat of the moment” card to explain rash decisions and fatal miscalculations.

Financial settlements are yet another mockery of justice. After years of exhaustive litigation, families are expected to literally “settle,” accepting money for loss of life, illustrating the “justice” system’s inability to repair or heal harm.

The only role communities play in these acts of performative justice is that our taxes, fees and tickets pay for their implementation. Rather than relegating the community to funding paltry solutions, attempts at reparations and systemic transformation should be community-led, every step of the way.

At the Justice 4 Kayla Moore Coalition, we envision crisis services that are shaped by the real mental health experts in our community: disabled people themselves, people with lived experience in the mental health system and practiced mental health professionals. We envision a city where every dollar that is currently wasted paying police to offer mental health “care” is redirected to a 24/7 dispatch service that sends out compassionate non-police responders. If the city felt as much urgency to provide reasonable accommodations for people with mental health disabilities as BPD officers felt to arrest Kayla, such a crisis response program could already be in action.

The slow progress of the Moore family’s case reveals the violence of the justice system, from on-the-ground punitive agents (police) to the courts. Delaying justice, incrementally eroding the family’s lawsuit claims, and minimizing the complex of violence acted upon Kayla is violence felt by the family and their community.

The Moore family has endured the compounded suffering of forestalled justice and has found the strength to persist for more than four years thanks in part to consistent community attention and support. Each delay from the courts is a reminder that community is the only basis of responsible justice and care. We all hope for systems that hold and support us in our humanity and which we can directly mold to better serve us. Meanwhile, settlements, failed trainings and thin policy bandaids abstract our realities and distract us from our power to shape our community.

Kayla Moore’s life is gone, and those who loved her must forever live without their dear daughter, sister and friend. The city of Berkeley cannot bring Kayla back or take away her family’s grief. All that Berkeley can do to take responsibility for Kayla’s death is to fix things for and, more precisely with those in the community who are still here.

Knowing that real justice must originate with the community, we invite anyone who wants to plug into current supportive efforts to text JUSTICE4KAYLA to 33222 or visit the Justice 4 Kayla Moore Facebook page.

Kamene Dornubari-Ogidi and Charlotte Halloran-Couch are members of the Justice 4 Kayla Moore Coalition.