BERKELEY (BCN) — More than three years after a transgender woman died in a struggle with Berkeley police, a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the woman’s family is set to go to trial and protesters are planning a march this evening to draw attention to the case.
Kayla Moore, 41, died after police were called to her home for a mental health check at about 11:40 p.m. on Feb. 12, 2013. Moore suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and had numerous prior contacts with Berkeley police.
The Alameda County coroner’s bureau found that she died from toxic levels of methamphetamine and codeine, but the family alleges that she was killed by two officers holding her face-down on a futon as they tried to arrest her.
The city is seeking a judgment in its favor and a hearing on that motion will be held in federal court in San Francisco on Friday. If that motion is denied, the case is scheduled to go to trial next month, according
to court records.
In addition to drawing attention to the upcoming court hearings, protesters are also seeking action from the City Council to change city policies in dealing with mental health crises.
“We want to make as much noise as possible, to wake this town up and alert the City Council to the fact that we are tired of their inaction,” Andrea Prichett of the Justice 4 Kayla Moore Coalition said in a statement.
“They have had three years since Kayla was killed and they have done nothing to change the situation. Mentally ill people in Berkeley are still in danger because of the police,” Prichett said.
The Police Department faced heavy criticism in the months after Moore’s death.
The department released a lengthy report finding her death was an accident, based on the coroner’s bureau finding that Moore died from acute combined drug intoxication from toxic levels of methamphetamine and codeine and that an enlarged heart and morbid obesity were contributing factors to her death.
Police said Moore weighed 347 pounds and was a heavy smoker who used crack cocaine and methamphetamine. She was combative with officers who came to her apartment that night, necessitating officers to restrain her.
Once she stopped breathing, officers removed the restraints, performed CPR and took her to a hospital, but she died there a short time later.
But in the family’s wrongful death lawsuit filed in February 2014, they allege that Moore was “unlawfully seized, restrained, arrested and battered by multiple city of Berkeley police officers.”
Moore was at her apartment in the 2100 block of Allston Way with her caretaker and a friend. It was the friend who called Berkeley police to request a mental health evaluation, according to the lawsuit.
Officers Brandon Smith and Gwendolyn Brown were the first to arrive at the apartment and found Moore speaking irrationally and making overtly paranoid comments that the officers were not really police.
Brown and Smith ordered the caretaker to leave the apartment, and rather than evaluate Moore to see if a mental health hold was necessary, they checked her and her friend’s names for warrants to try and justify an arrest.
They found a warrant for Moore’s friend who had called police for the mental health evaluation, and also found a warrant for a person named “Xavier Moore,” Kayla Moore’s birth name. But police dispatchers told Smith that the warrant was for someone 60 years old, about 20 years older than Moore, according to the suit.
Rather than confirm the warrant was in fact for Moore, Brown and Officer Kenneth Tu grabbed Moore’s wrists and tried to put her in handcuffs, according to the complaint. Moore was frightened and confused and screamed, “no, no” as she struggled with the officers.
The officers threw her face down onto a futon on the floor and called for backup. Officers Brian Mathis, Timothy Gardner and Nikos Kastmiler arrived, according to the suit.
Brown held Moore face down, pressing her body weight into Moore’s shoulder blades. Tu lay on top of Moore’s lower body to keep her from moving her legs. Moore was screaming, “Get off me” while struggling to breathe, the suit alleges.
Eventually Moore lost consciousness during the struggle. When officers turned her onto her side, they realized she was not breathing.
Officers performed chest compressions on Moore but did not perform rescue breaths, the suit alleges.
The reason that all CPR procedures were not followed, the suit alleges, is because she was transgender. The lawsuit says that Sgt. Amber Phillips and other officers made discriminatory comments about Moore during the incident, referring to her as “it” and making inquiries about her gender identification.
The complaint, filed by the law offices of prominent civil rights attorney John Burris, is seeking unspecified damages for the family.