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Copwatch group working to separate police from mental health calls

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Posted at 3:34 PM, Mar 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-27 17:51:39-04

BERKELEY, Calif. — If you ask Maria Moore about her sister, you’ll see a smile only family can bring out.

“If people had met Kayla, they would have loved her,” said Moore.

They grew up as best friends and were close to their family. Even though it drove her crazy, Maria always let Kayla borrow her clothes, anything she wanted.

“She wanted to wear the clothes that made her feel good,” said Maria, recalling times Kayla would steal her favorite dress or nightgown.

Maria knew it helped her sister who was transgender and identified as female.

“The other kids would taunt her relentlessly,” she said of Kayla’s time in school.

Kayla’s struggle didn’t end when she left the bullies in school. Later in life, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Maria and her family called the police several times for help when Kayla would get overwhelmed.

“Each occasion, you know, Kayla walked into the ambulance on her own. They took her to the hospital, and you know, in a matter of days she would come back and be fine,” said Maria of how the police handled mental health care calls when she was growing up.

The responses were appropriate, she said, until one night in 2013. Maria and her family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Berkeley Police Department after Kayla’s roommate called police for a welfare check for her. Maria said the police told Kayla they had a warrant for her arrest.

“Kayla was scared,” said Maria. “She was like, ‘No, that's not true. I'm going to go make a phone call.’ The minute she turned to make that phone call, that's when the officers grabbed her and piled on top of her.”

Multiple officers held Kayla down for several minutes.

“And just like George Floyd, her last words were, ‘Get off me. I can't breathe,’” recalled Maria. “The officer looked at her while she's laying there dead. The officer said, 'Well, what is it? Is it a he or she?'"

Eight years later, no officers have been charged. A review board exonerated all officers involved and a judge dismissed the wrongful death lawsuit.

Yet, despite this blow to the Moore family and the community seeking police accountability, there’s one thing giving Maria hope: Berkeley Copwatch.

“It was important for me to get involved in some way to make sure this doesn't happen to someone else,” she said.

Maria is working with Copwatch’s founder, Andrea Prichett, to hold the police in their neighborhood accountable and to start a mental health response team separate from the police.

“We decided to begin witnessing and just to stand in solidarity with people as they were having in their interactions with the police,” said Prichett of Copwatch’s mission.

For 31 years, Prichett and her team have listened to police scanners. Then, they drive, bike or walk to scenes with the goal of taking pictures and videos of tense situations.

“I don't have some chip on our shoulders about the police, or it's not about power,” said Prichett. “It's about just a deep love of our community and trying to get the things for our community that we need."

Once the video is collected, Maria Yates complies the information of each police encounter. She will collect a narrative of the encounter from the volunteer who witnessed it, video and any photos. Then, it will be cataloged so that the group can keep track of which officers have repeated misconduct. If a pattern is established with a certain officer, Copwatch brings the data to the community to bring transparency and accountability.

“You have a First Amendment right to film the police in all 50 states, and it's important to do so. Exercise your rights or what's the point of having them?” said Yates.

All this video can help hold police accountable, but Berkeley professor Nikki Jones said people must understand that there is sometimes more than is on video.

“No piece of evidence ever tells the whole story, and any story is a compilation of different pieces of evidence from different perspectives,” said Jones, a professor of African American studies at the University of California Berkeley. “The lens is going to be trained on what's meaningful and important to the person behind the lens."

For example, an officer’s bodycam will show the subject or civilian as what’s most important, and a civilian or bystander video may be trained on police.

Regardless, Jones said with multiple videos, a powerful narrative can be told, and so it is valuable to collect this data to begin to hold those in power accountable.

“Video is no guarantee of justice,” said Prichett. “However, if we as a local organization can gather that information and make it available to the people in our communities, so that they can make bigger decisions about what kind of policing do we want in our community."

In addition to documenting these moments of an incident, Copwatch has a mission to educate the community. Each week, volunteers walk through the neighborhoods of Berkeley to hand out resources and educate unhoused people and marginalized community members about their rights when they interact with police. Their resources can be found here.

Copwatch volunteers said having video and data gives power to the community, especially so people can decide how they want mental health crises to be responded to.

“We need officers, but we don't need officers for mental health calls. Ever,” said Maria.

“It is our hope to get police out of mental health crises for, if not just for Kayla, for everyone that has come and gone through the system since her death,” said Yates.

They hope in educating marginalized communities and by using their data to publicly document what they see, Copwatch will be able to change the culture of local police departments.

“It makes me feel hopeful,” said Maria.

She's hopeful that this movement happening in the streets will turn into justice—however it may come. While it will never bring her sister back, it may help other families not feel the pain she has endured for the last eight years.