Oakland officers discovered a person unconscious in a automobile with a gun. Then police reform advocates stepped in

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When Carina Lieu got home for dropping her son off at daycare on Tuesday, she saw nearly 20 officers, some with rifles drawn, surrounding a silver car that crashed in the middle of the street outside their Oakland apartment.

Lieu leaned out of the window and shouted, “Please don’t hurt him, he needs medical help.” An officer called out to her to stay away. But Lieu wanted to help. She was afraid that the situation would escalate and the police would shoot the driver.

Lieu called mental health attorneys and first responders. Almost four hours after the police arrived, the man was safely rushed to the hospital – his handover was facilitated by police attorneys who got his mother to lure him out of the car.

Oakland Police responded to a car accident on May 11 in a video by Carina Lieu. The driver was passed out with a gun in his lap. The man’s mother helped police get him out of the car safely without the incident escalating. Video: San Francisco Chronicle

The incident fueled the debate on how to de-escalate dangerous situations with the police that could injure or kill either the officer or the parishioner. For those in favor of police reform, the role parishioners played in handing over the man was a clear indication that alternatives to increased police response can prevent potentially fatal situations. Even critics of the reinterpreted police movement agreed that Tuesday’s approach should be standard.

Many people in Lieu’s position would not have known who to turn to for help, but as the Oakland Youth Leadership Development Coordinator, she worked with young people who were on and knew about the Reimagine Public Safety Task Force who to call for outside police help. But, she said, the general public couldn’t.

“We need that kind of thing now,” said Lieu of the community’s reaction. “We can’t wait.”

Cat Brooks, the executive director of the Counter-Police Terrorism Project, said when she got the call Tuesday, she was immediately reminded of Demouria Hogg. Hogg was shot dead by Oakland police in 2015 after they found him unconscious in his car with a pistol in the passenger seat. She said the police can often have “twitching fingers” when using force and she wanted to avoid a fatal outcome.

Brooks said she asked Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas for help. Bas then turned to Police Commissioner LeRonne Armstrong to ask if the man’s mother, who had just arrived, could help ease the tense situation. Armstrong agreed.

The man’s mother calmly approached her son’s vehicle and finally led him to the ambulance. His family members hugged him before he got inside.

“This is the Oakland we’re fighting for, that’s what we’re trying to build,” said Brooks. “We know this will save lives.”

The police department said de-escalating and minimizing the use of incidents of violence were a priority. Armstrong, who was sworn in in February, said he was an advocate of de-escalation and the department had stepped up training on how to use the tactic.

“Do you even have to use force?” he said. “That is the constant assessment our officers are supposed to use.”

He said it was a breeze to let the man’s mother help the officers. Brooks said she asked officers to step away from the scene and put their guns aside while they all waited for the man’s mother to arrive.

Armstrong said time and space are critical.

“You need to use more resources and more people. It will take longer to achieve compliance,” he said. “The cost is worth the benefit. The advantage is that nobody loses their life and nobody gets hurt. “

Barry Donelan, president of the Oakland Police Officers Association, said de-escalation is a “tool” to achieve the ideal outcome, which is the preservation of life.

“The goal is the result that doesn’t hurt anyone,” he said.

The debate on how to change police practices is taking place as the city council wants to adopt some recommendations from the Reimagine Public Safety Task Force that emerged from protests last summer against George Floyd’s death and police brutality.

As the city council works on the city’s next two-year budget, it is trying to cut the police department’s budget and instead invest in other services.

The city council voted earlier this month to prioritize 12 of the task force’s recommendations, including a long-term investment in a pilot program to send counselors and paramedics from the city’s fire department to mental health emergencies in lieu of cops.

In addition, priorities include investing in crisis hotlines outside the 911 emergency system, transferring funds to the city’s violence prevention department, supporting services for domestic violence survivors, and moving most of the traffic monitoring to the city’s transportation department .

The council also approved a continuation of the reimagine process in a second phase.

Bas jointly sponsored the resolution on the 12 priorities with Councilor Carroll Fife, stating that it intends to identify the causes of violence and poverty.

“People are more stable in their community and neighborhood when they have the stability of a home, job, education and health care,” Bas said. “If we can provide these things, we can be much more effective at preventing crime from occurring.”

Steve Heimoff, president of the Coalition for a Better Oakland, a group of 12 people who want more police resources, said he would support mental health teams but “we’ll have to see how it works”.

He fears violent crime in the city will increase if funds are stolen from the police.

Donelan said he supports funding the services set out in the council’s priorities, but doesn’t think the police budget should be used to fund them.

“Do not defuse the police department and give up efforts to combat violent crime,” said Donelan.

Fife has said in previous meetings that routing resources to neighborhoods creates safer communities.

Regina Jackson, the chairman of the city’s police force, agrees. She said investing in the city’s homelessness, housing and violence prevention efforts will create a safer city. And that leads to de-escalation efforts because it makes life a priority, Jackson said.

“We need to innovate on a regular basis because we have nuanced problems (and challenges) to deal with,” said Jackson.

Bas said the sale by the police will be a slow process – a 50% cut in the city’s next budget is unlikely to be possible, but the council has “a public mandate to cut the police budget”.

Public views on police funding are complex. The city surveyed 1,862 randomly selected residents from December through January during a worrying surge in homicides. The survey found that 78% of respondents said the same or more police officers would like to patrol their neighborhood and respond to emergency calls, and nearly 60% were in favor of removing the police from nonviolent situations and mental health calls.

Armstrong said he was “very open” to alternative responses to certain crimes, but he had questions.

“What is the program like?” he said. “Can this program now provide the resources and support?”

Sarah Ravani is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: sravani@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @SarRavani