Berkeley Death in Police Custody Was Accidental, Probe Concludes

The in-custody death of a Berkeley resident, which has fueled speculation about police conduct and calls for transparency, was accidental and due to acute combined drug intoxication, according to documents released late last Friday.

Kayla Moore (Courtesy Maria Moore)
Kayla Moore (Courtesy Maria Moore)

Kayla Moore, a transgender woman who family members say was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, stopped breathing while she was handcuffed in Berkeley police custody the night of Feb. 12.

The 348-page report about the incident and subsequent investigation by homicide detectives, which includes the coroner’s report, tells the story of a sudden tragic death that occurred after officers briefly wrestled with Moore and restrained her with handcuffs and a leg strap. The report refers to Moore by her legal first name, Xavier.

Controversy escalated in the months since Moore’s death. The Berkeley Police Review Commission opened an investigation into the incident, and family members called for information to be released at a Berkeley City Council meeting April 30. The meeting erupted into a shouting match between Mayor Tom Bates and protesters, and police removed a Moore family friend from the meeting.

“It didn’t matter which officers showed up or who showed up,” Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan said in reference to criticism that mental health personnel or specially trained officers should have responded to a call about someone suffering a mental health crisis. “The poison is in his system, and there’s nothing anybody can do to take it out.”

The Alameda County coroner found that Kayla Moore died with potentially toxic levels of methamphetamine and codeine. Police and the coroner found glass pipes with steel wool commonly associated with meth or crack cocaine smoking. The coroner also listed obesity and an enlarged heart as contributing factors in Moore’s death.

Statements from neighbors and other people who knew Moore depict a person who was often kind with a sunny personality. Some neighbors reported that Moore could act strangely, knocking on their doors and asking for cigarettes or talking about drugs.

A psychiatric symptom called anhedonia, which is associated with many illnesses and is basically the inability to experience pleasure, can be at the root of drug addiction for people with schizophrenia, said David Fariello, director of UCSF’s Division of Community Services and a licensed clinical social worker for 33 years.

“One of the things that’s typical with schizophrenia is having difficulty engaging socially and feeling connected,” he said. “One of the things that crack or amphetamine or uppers do is it immediately gives you this sense of energy and involvement and connection.”

He added that it’s a short-term fix, though, and that meth leads to increased paranoia and that prolonged use can intensify hallucinations associated with schizophrenia.

Three Berkeley police officers initially headed for Moore’s apartment downtown in the Gaia Building after Moore’s roommate called to report a heated argument, and said Moore might need to “5150’d,” or involuntarily confined for a mental health evaluation, according to police reports. Moore’s family members have said she has been taken into custody under California Welfare and Institutions Code 5150 multiple times in the past.

Officers first spoke to Moore in the hallway outside her fifth-floor apartment. Police reports by the officers describe Moore as agitated and confused. She said she needed to contact the FBI and that the FBI had been following her, and called officers random names or appeared to be talking to people who were not there.

Fariello said acute mental crises often occur late at night, sometimes after days of trouble sleeping. As a crisis begins, people become unable to mask their symptoms.

“Things could keep growing until voices get really intrusive and become difficult to tolerate, and they might get more and more confused,” Fariello said. He added these could lead to increased adrenaline and a fight-or-flight state.

During their conversation, police discovered there was a warrant out for Moore for battery in San Francisco and decided to detain her for a 5150 evaluation and possible warrant arrest.

Two officers initially grabbed each hand and attempted to restrain the 350-pound Moore, but they were overpowered, according to their reports and transcriptions of interviews with Berkeley homicide detectives. The struggle ended on a mattress inside Moore’s apartment, and three more officers, plus two sergeants, arrived and helped put handcuffs and a leg restraint on Moore, who was kicking and screaming, according to police reports.

“When someone is really psychotic, they have strength two to three times normal,” Fariello said. “Your adrenaline is running, you’re psychotic, people are out to get you, and you’re flailing out to save your life.”

One officer reported Moore suddenly “kind of stopped fighting,” after she was handcuffed. They rolled her onto her side, still on the mattress. About a minute later, another officer realized Moore was not breathing and had no pulse. Police removed the handcuffs, began CPR and called for paramedics.

Moore couldn’t be resuscitated and was pronounced dead at 1:34 a.m. on Feb. 13 at Alta Bates Hospital.

The Berkeley Police Department’s probe into the in-custody death of Moore was concluded with the completion of the Alameda County coroner’s report on April 23.

Moore’s family members said they planned to go over the report with an attorney today and have no further comment at this time.

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Alex Emslie

Alex Emslie is a news reporter focused on criminal justice policy, policing and legal issues. He left Colorado and a career as a carpenter in 2008 to study journalism at community college in San Francisco. He then graduated from San Francisco State University's journalism program with a minor in criminal justice studies. Emslie contributed to several Bay Area newspapers and online news outlets before joining KQED in 2013. He loves multimedia reporting, publishing source documents and transparency. He can be reached at aemslie@kqed.org and followed via @SFNewsReporter.

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