Berkeley Commission Probes Police Role in Transgender Woman’s Death
by Alex Emslie
Paranoid, schizophrenic and transgender, Kayla Moore followed a difficult path through life. That path ended abruptly when she died after Berkeley Police took her into custody the night of Feb. 12.
Now the Berkeley Police Review Commission wants to know exactly how Moore died and what it might mean for the way the department deals with transgender people and with the mentally ill. On Wednesday night the commission voted unanimously to investigate the case.
But even before it started, the investigation has run into serious obstacles. The police are conducting their own investigation, and a Berkeley ordinance prevents a commission investigation from beginning until criminal investigations are complete.
“It will be stayed by our regulations pending the investigation by the Berkeley Police Department, which is a little ridiculous,” Commissioner Seth Morris said. “But it sounds like that’s what our regulations are. Until we rewrite the book, that’s where we are.”
The commission did file a formal complaint, the first step toward an investigation. The complaint had to be filed within 90 days of the incident.
Berkeley Police Department has released few details about officers’ response to Moore’s apartment. Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan said three official investigations are pending – one criminal, one internal policy and training, and a third investigation into Moore’s cause of death by the Alameda County Coroner.
The police have also refused to release basic information about the nature of officers’ encounter with Moore, citing their ongoing investigations. A Feb. 13 department press release said police responded to a disturbance at Moore’s downtown Berkeley apartment, and Moore “became increasingly uncooperative to the officer’s verbal commands and began to scream and violently resist.” Officer’s struggled with Moore, and then placed her “in restraints.” They later determined she had stopped breathing and initiated CPR.
The account raised a lot of questions for Moore’s family and friends, who often refer to Kayla by her given name Xavier and use the male pronoun.
Moore’s sister, Maria Moore, said Berkeley Police knew Moore’s history.
“Berkeley was well aware of Xavier’s issues,” she said. “I don’t know the circumstances that happened that night, but mental health wasn’t there for him. They needed that aspect to help calm him down, to help communicate with him. You’re dealing with someone who’s paranoid, who trusts no one, and you have the police there?”
“He had his issues, psychiatric and some drug addiction issues, but he was a gentle soul,” said Carl Butler, the longtime boyfriend of Moore’s sister. “He spent more time taking care of other people than he did himself. Unless prompted, he was never aggressive, which leads to so many questions about the actions of the Berkeley PD that night.”
At the meeting, Butler pressed Meehan on the fact that officers who responded to Moore’s apartment have been removed from administrative leave and are back on their beats, but Meehan offered no explanation.
“My main concern at this point in time, other than the lack of information being shared with us, is the fact that the police officers involved are back on duty, which shows me that there has been an internal investigation completed,” Butler said. “How come the chief couldn’t share findings of that investigation this evening?”
Berkeley Police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer Coats said the officers had served the set period of time defined by department policy on administrative leave, and had since been put back on their beats. She did not know how long that period is or who makes the administrative decision to reinstate officers.
Maria Moore said her sibling defied stereotypes that may come to mind for people diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
“Xavier had a great bubbly personality,” she said. “He was a ditzy bleach blond in a 300 pound black man’s body. He was just so, loving life. He loved everybody. He was just very innocent, childlike.”
Meehan refused to offer a timeline to the commission for completing any of the investigations, saying at one point they would have to wait for a complete coroner’s report, which can take more than three months, according to the Coroner’s office.
“The coroner’s office doesn’t work for us,” Meehan said to the commission. “They are completely independent, and they operate on the timeline that they operate on. We have spoken with them, but we have no influence over them.”
However, a coroner’s office representative, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Berkeley police requested they share no preliminary information about Moore’s death, including details about the autopsy.
The Alameda County District Attorney’s office is aware of the police department’s investigations, but the office itself doesn’t automatically review in-custody deaths like they do officer involved shootings that result in a death, the D.A.’s public information officer Teresa Drenick said.
Andrea Prichett, a founding member of Berkeley Copwatch who has been investigating Moore’s death, said the Berkeley Police Department’s lack of transparency is alarming.
“The fact is, with the decline in mental health services, police departments across the country have found themselves dealing with mental health crises that they’re not trained to deal with,” she said. “And across the country they’re being dealt with with lethal consequences.”
Berkeley Mental Health Commissioner Paul Kealoha-Blake told the police review commission that Berkeley’s strategy regarding mental illness had fallen behind the times, and he advocated a greater commitment to Crisis Intervention Training for police officers. The CIT model trains officers in de-escalation techniques for confrontations with people who may be mentally ill.
Berkeley Police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer Coats said the department now has eight CIT certified officers and are working on expanding the training.
“I’m a real supporter of CIT,” Kealoha-Blake said. “It is my hope that Berkeley not only adopts and works in Crisis Intervention Training but we work at it hard and long and provide a model for how it should work. We’re not there yet.”