BERKELEY -- The death in February of a mentally ill, transgender, African-American woman who was being taken into police custody should bring disciplinary action for the officers involved, according to report presented by a watchdog group to the Police Review Commission on Wednesday.
The group Copwatch also called for new procedures for handling future incidents of this type, saying mental health professionals, not police, should respond to emergency calls concerning people experiencing mental health crises.
Maria Moore, sister of Kayla Xavier Moore, was part of a panel presenting the 36-page report. She told commissioners and some 50 people in attendance that a roommate called 911 because Kayla Moore was off her medication and acting strangely.
"The roommate decided to call police to get help," an emotional Moore said. "She wasn't a danger to herself; she wasn't a danger to others. She wasn't disturbing the peace. She was in her own home."
The report recaps events leading to death of Moore, 41: When police responded to the roommate's call, they checked to see if he or Moore had outstanding warrants. They found a warrant for the roommate, whom they arrested, and a warrant for someone with Moore's name, but a different birth date.
The lead officer decided to arrest Moore on the warrant. When Moore learned she was going to jail, she resisted. Backup was called.
Attempting to administer handcuffs and leg restraints, several officers straddled the 347-pound Moore, who was face down on a mattress. At one point, Moore became quiet. Still breathing, she was rolled to her side, but then stopped breathing. The autopsy report concluded Moore's death was caused by drug intoxication coupled with morbid obesity and cardiovascular disease.
Before opening the meeting to the panel and public, commissioners explained that because staff is investigating police conduct surrounding the death, they could not discuss the case.
Investigators will present findings to a closed-door Police Review Commission meeting in January. Given state-mandated protections for police, the commission cannot disclose the allegations or the investigators' findings, nor can they reveal commission decisions on whether to sustain charges, said PRC investigator Bryon Norris.
After addressing questions of police misconduct, the commission will decide whether to look at policy issues.
A key policy change Copwatch recommended calls for the city to provide nonpolice alternatives to people experiencing mental health crises. "Inviting the police into these situations can lead to escalation," panelist Diana Bohn said.
Instead of spending city funds on more police and equipment, panelist Andrea Prichett said funds should be redirected to mental health care. "Berkeley is a world leader in disability rights, yet we're acting like we're from the Stone Age, when it comes to mental health care," Prichett said.
The Copwatch report also called for de-escalation training for all officers and ending background checks on people reporting crimes.
Prichett said officers who detained Moore on a warrant lacking confirmation should be disciplined for "false arrest." And she said police should be sanctioned for use of excessive force, given the weight placed on Moore when handcuffing her.
Commissioner Michael Sherman called the report "one of the best that I've ever read before this commission from any citizen's group."
He asked those present for patience during the lengthy PRC process, underscoring that the issue is larger than loss of Kayla Moore's life and noting the lack of budget support for mental health on federal, state and local levels. He pointed to the consequences of city funding cuts to the Mobile Crisis Team of three mental health professionals who, when available, respond to calls from persons in crisis.
Police Department and Berkeley Police Association representatives observed the meeting without commenting publicly. After the meeting, Officer D.C. Bartalini of the BPA told this newspaper he agreed that mental health professionals should be the first responders to persons experiencing mental health crises.
However, "The mental health department has been decimated," he said, adding that a number of Crisis Intervention Team officers have been specially trained in de-escalation tactics. Neither the Mobile Crisis Team nor CIT officers was available the night Moore died.
Bartalini cautioned that there is no single answer to how best to respond to a person in a mental health crisis. "Some people think there's a magic pill," he said.
The Copwatch report can be found at www.berkeleycopwatch.org.