With two weeks left before the recommendations by the Police Reform and Racial Justice subcommittees are to be presented to City Council, the Merry-Go-Round wanted to circle back to where it all began: the “Mali Watkins incident.”
It is not our intent to rehash the events leading to the detention and arrest of Mr. Watkins on May 23. Last June the City released bodycam footage from all of the police officers involved in the incident; the videos remain available on YouTube, and our readers can judge for themselves whether the tapes constitute proof that racial bias permeates the Alameda Police Department, thereby justifying the imposition of drastic changes in how policing is done in Alameda.
Rather, we want to focus today on how City officials and others responded right after the incident and how those reactions may have shaped the police-reform process. We’ll also provide an update – to the extent we’ve been able to discover it from the public record – on the status of the criminal and civil investigations and litigation it has spawned.
The events of May 23 involving Mr. Watkins were first described – and decried – by a pseudonymous poster on Reddit. (“This is Alameda, folks. For fucks sake. Fuck the Karen who did this.”) The next week, according to the East Bay Citizen, a video “created by a member of the public went viral on various social media sites,” and on June 5, the City released – as Police Chief Paul Rolleri had promised it would – the actual bodycam footage from the officers who took part in the detention and arrest.
Almost immediately, three Council members declared that they found the behavior of the police officers so appalling that it demonstrated the need to make far-reaching revisions to APD’s policies and procedures, and, indeed, to its very role in the community.
The day the bodycam tapes were released, John Knox White, then the Vice Mayor, described them in a Facebook post as depicting a “disturbing and violent interaction” between police officers and Mr. Watkins, “one of our neighbors and a Black man who was wrestled to the ground and handcuffed for ‘dancing in the street.’” In fact, Mr. Watkins wasn’t arrested for “dancing in the street,” but Mr. Knox White’s characterization became part of the standard narrative (even among otherwise careful newspaper reporters).
“I am outraged and I am sad and I am committed to ensuring that there is a full, independent investigation and that there is accountability for those involved, including those who created a system that allowed this to happen,” Mr. Knox White went on. “I join our community in a call to action to implement systemic change to make sure that this never happens again.”
The June 5 Facebook posts by Councilwoman Malia Vella were similar. Apparently before she had even seen the bodycam footage, she posted that, “I am livid that what happened on May 23rd even occurred.” After watching the bodycam videos, she posted again: “I am sobbing. From the bottom of my heart – I am sorry. I am so so sorry. I don’t want to see this happen again. . . . I warn if you watch them – they are triggering ⚠️.”
In her first post, Ms. Vella accused APD management – she plainly was referring to Chief Rolleri – of a “cover up.” The next day, she condemned the citizen who had called the cops in the first place and opined that the police should not have dispatched officers to respond to the call at all. A week later, she concluded: “The time for transformative change is now – those in need should receive care that benefits them, rather than being criminalized for needing care. #LaborForBlackLives #BlackLivesMatter.”
And, of course, Councilman Jim Oddie also weighed in. “After seeing the social media video of APD’s interactions with one of our African American residents on May 23, I was angry and disgusted,” he posted on June 5. He then offered a list of specific actions he wanted to see taken, including implementing the “#8cantwait” policies – “none of us are safe unless all of us are safe” – and “evaluat[ing] and amend[ing] all of our policing policies incorporating principles of just policing – our Constitution demands equal protection of all of persons under the law.”
The politicians weren’t the only ones to discern racial bias in the detention and arrest of Mr. Watkins or to rely on that perception as justification for overhauling APD. Indeed, a handful of Alamedans who later became leaders of the police-reform committees took that position as soon as they saw the videos – and said so publicly.
“At the point he walks away, he tried to exercise a right that we all have as Americans, but as a Black person you don’t have that right,” Al Mance, an Alameda resident who works as an Alameda County public defender, told KGO-7. Later, Mr. Mance was quoted in the East Bay Times as saying that the officers “did not have a reasonable suspicion to detain” Mr. Watkins. “But that didn’t stop them.”
At the June 16 and 17 Council meetings, two of the public speakers were EF and DM. (Unlike Mr. Mance, these two women did not give television or press interviews, so we’ll follow our usual practice of not using the full names of public speakers at Council meetings.)
EF told Council that Mr. Watkins’ “detention and assault” by APD manifested “deeply ingrained racism.” She asked the elected officials to hold off passing a budget “until discussions about radically transforming policing in Alameda have at least started. . . .” She urged the City to take “immediate” steps to shift the “majority of the police budget” into funding for “community-support professionals”; to move funds being used for APD overtime into paying for crossing guards; and to sell the department’s “military-grade equipment” in order to “fund infrastructure investments.”
“These steps are needed,” she said, “not because of what happened in Minneapolis to George Floyd, or what is happening across the country. These steps are needed because of what happened here in our city less than a month ago.”
DM presented Council with her own list of what she called “demands.” Saying she wanted to “defund the police,” she urged Council not to “allocate one more dollar towards police in our city budget” but instead to “immediately reallocate” 10% of the police budget to “alternatives in policing” such as “health care, mental health care, education, housing, jobs and providing intervention and social workers as community-based first responders.” She also argued for establishing a “police oversight” committee “made up of majority impacted community members including youth and families,” and for “remov[ing] all law enforcement from schools” and “reinvest[ing]” in “youth restorative justice programs and community-based solutions.”
City Manager Eric Levitt later selected Mr. Mance to be one of the four members of the steering committee leading the police-reform process. The steering committee in turn appointed EF and DM as co-chairs of the “unbundling” subcommittee. The subcommittee reports released last month reveal that none of them has undergone any change of heart – or mind – since they first spoke out.
We previously pointed out that the subcommittees did not explicitly conclude in their reports that APD, on a department-wide basis, was enforcing the law in a discriminatory manner against Blacks and other persons of color, nor did they engage in the kind of analysis that researchers usually use to determine whether racial bias affects outcomes. Having gone back to look at some of the contemporaneous comments by those who came to lead the police-reform process, we may have a better understanding of the subcommittees’ thinking: there was no reason to delve into any details about racially discriminatory law enforcement by APD – the Watkins incident alone told them all they needed to know.
But we still have to ask: would an observer without any preconceived notions truly have viewed the Watkins incident as evidence of systemic racial bias in APD? We’ve heard many times how Alameda police have a historical “reputation” for racism. If one is intent on proving (or confirming) that the current crop of Alameda cops is living up (or down) to that reputation, the Watkins detention and arrest offers a perfect opportunity. Why would officers who are white detain and arrest a Black man who, when approached, was committing no crime? To those schooled in critical race theory, there can be only one answer: racism. Mr. Watkins’s conduct is irrelevant; his race explains it all.
We’d like to think that our local activists are not using the Watkins incident simply to validate the bleak view of the police they already held. But we can’t be sure.
Likewise, the context in which news of the incident surfaced cannot be ignored. George Floyd was killed on May 25; the video “created by a member of the public” of Mr. Watkins’s detention and arrest was posted on social media the following week. We have no reason to believe that the person who posted was attempting to exploit the outrage caused by the Floyd killing. Indeed, as far as we know, no one ever accused Alameda cops of treating Mr. Watkins as badly as the Minneapolis cops treated Mr. Floyd. But if one ignores the obvious dissimilarities and focuses only on the superficial parallels, one might well see the Alameda event as a symptom of the same disease, for which the same surgery is indicated: If police officers everywhere are assaulting Black men on the street, then maybe every police department ought to be abolished (or “defunded”) altogether – and it ought to happen here and now.
We’d like to think that our local politicians are not using the Watkins incident primarily to persuade their base that they, like their “progressive” counterparts across the country, can get tough on the police. But we can’t be sure about that, either.
Now for the updates.
As Council was refining the police-reform process, two separate investigations into the events of May 23 were going on.
The cops had cited – i.e., given a ticket to – Mr. Watkins for violating Penal Code section 148, which provides that any person who “willfully resists, delays, or obstructs any [police officer] in the discharge or attempt to discharge any duty of his or her office or employment” is guilty of a misdemeanor. But, in a July 10 letter, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley informed Chief Rolleri that the D.A. declined to file charges in the case.
The letter was extraordinary, for two reasons.
First, a prosecutor often will choose not to proceed against the person arrested for a crime if she is not confident she can prove the defendant’s guilt to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt – but she seldom, if ever, writes a letter to a police chief explaining her decision not to do so in a misdemeanor case.
Second, the letter is, to put it politely, sloppily worded. “We do believe,” it states, “that the Officers did not have sufficient probable cause to detain [Mr. Watkins], making the citation null and void.” But, as the D.A. surely knows, “probable cause” is the standard used to determine whether an arrest is lawful, and a different – and lower – standard applies to a detention. (As the Nolo Press describes the difference between the italicized terms, “An officer’s ‘brief and cursory’ holding and questioning someone is a detention. . . . An arrest, on the other hand, involves the police taking someone into custody through a more significant restraint on movement.”) Indeed, the D.A.’s office itself has written, in an article distributed to police departments throughout the County, that police officers have the right to make so-called “special needs” detentions whenever they “reasonably believe” that a person may be sick, injured, or “so mentally unstable as to constitute a threat to himself or others.”
This ambiguity leaves the reader in doubt about what Ms. O’Malley decided the APD officers had done wrong: Was it the detention (which did not require “probable cause”) or the subsequent arrest (which did)? If what Ms. O’Malley meant to say is that the APD officers misjudged Mr. Watkins’s physical or mental condition and therefore shouldn’t have detained him, such a conclusion might support the idea that a health professional ought to accompany (or replace) police officers on certain calls. In that case, her opinion might carry some weight in deciding whether to recommend, or impose, that kind of reform. But it has nothing to do with race.
At the same time the District Attorney was reviewing the Watkins incident, an outside investigator retained by the City apparently was looking into it as well. We say “apparently” because the only information we could get is contained in a press release issued on July 9 announcing that the City had hired a southern California lawyer named Alfonso Estrada to “conduct an independent investigation” of Mr. Watkins’s arrest.
The City never posted any status reports about the investigation on its website, so we emailed a few questions to Mr. Levitt this Friday. We asked what the investigation consisted of, how long it lasted, and how much it cost. We also inquired about whether the investigator prepared a report, and, if so, to whom it was distributed. And we requested that the City Manager disclose, if he could do so without compromising privacy rights, what action(s), if any, were taken as a result of the investigation.
Mr. Levitt declined to answer any of our questions, even the most basic ones, in time for inclusion in this piece. Initially, he said he needed to consult the City Attorney. A few hours later, he informed us that, “Due to confidentiality of personnel files and an active claim with the City from Mr. Watkins, we will need time to review what is public record and can be provided. It will likely take until next week.”
We dearly hope that Mr. Levitt will decide to provide us with the elementary facts about the investigation so we can report them to the public. Not only did Alameda taxpayers pay for it, but we think its findings and conclusions would be relevant to evaluating what policy and procedural reforms, if any, the Watkins incident shows are necessary at APD.
If we get the answers, we’ll update this column. If not, everyone will be free to guess what the investigator did and what he found – which is, we have to say, not a very salutary state of affairs.
In the meantime, the only other information we can provide – which was confirmed by Human Resources Director Nancy Bronstein – is that one of the two police officers involved in detaining Mr. Watkins left the employ of the City at the end of 2020, and that the other officer, as well as the supervising sergeant, remain employed. We caution our readers, however, against jumping to the conclusion that anyone was fired (or not fired) as a result of the incident, since the City steadfastly refuses to disclose anything about personnel actions or the reasons therefor.
Finally, regardless of what police reforms Council chooses to enact, the fallout from the Watkins incident will not be over.
On July 6, Oakland attorney John Burris, who is well-known for bringing suits for monetary damages against governmental agencies alleging racially motivated police misconduct (he represented, among others, Rodney King and the family of Oscar Grant), filed a claim on behalf of Mr. Watkins against the City – the first step toward a potential lawsuit.
The claim alleged that Mr. Watkins had been “assaulted and arrested by City of Alameda Police officers for dancing in front of his home.” The APD officers had violated Mr. Watkins’ constitutional rights; used excessive force; committed assault, battery, and false imprisonment; and intentionally and negligently inflicted emotional distress, the claim stated. As a result, Mr. Watkins was entitled to compensation for “pain, suffering and emotional distress”; “medical and related expenses, lost wages, damage to career, damage to educational pursuits, [and] damage to property”; and “permanent mental injuries, permanent mental scarring and/or other psychological disabilities.”
What stuck out to us when we reviewed the claim was that it did not allege that the APD officers had engaged in the litany of misconduct against Mr. Watkins because of his race. Racial bias is not an element of any of the causes of action alleged by Mr. Burris – a white person can be the victim of a tortious assault, too – but, based on what we have observed over the years, he does not hesitate to call out racism when he sees it. He did not issue any press release or hold any news conference about the Watkins case, and it may be that the omission of any reference to racial bias in the claim was just an oversight. But it’s still somewhat odd.
Assistant City Attorney Alan Cohen told us the City did not file any written response to the claim within 45 days, and, as a matter of law, it thus is deemed to have been rejected. Mr. Cohen declined to comment any further about the case, including whether the parties have met to discuss settlement. (Privileged under Evidence Code section 1152, he asserted.) Indeed, he didn’t even give us the contact information we requested for the attorney in Mr. Burris’s office handling the matter.
Mr. Watkins now is free to file suit against the City. Our check of the Alameda County Superior Court online database showed that the only proceeding initiated by anyone named Mali Watkins in the last year was a change-of-name petition, which the court later dismissed. No action by him against the City of Alameda is listed. Stay tuned.
O’Malley letter: 2020-07-10 O’Malley letter to Rolleri
Alameda County District Attorney “Point of View” (winter 2020): Alameda County District Attorney, POV (winter 2020)
Watkins claim against City: Watkins claim REDACTED