Relatives of a local woman who died after being struck by a driver as she crossed a South Berkeley street last week are questioning the police response and say they plan to sue the city.
Latitia Austin Ahmad, 54, was visiting her brother, who owns a jewelry shop in the neighborhood, when a driver struck her at Newbury Street and Ashby Avenue on July 26 just before 10 p.m. When Ahmad’s daughter rushed to her aid in the roadway, family members said, the fleeing driver struck both women, leaving them with serious injuries as she left the scene.
After the driver initially hit his mother, sending the Oakland woman flying through the air, 21-year-old Sharif Ahmad said he rushed up to the driver to get her to stop. She kept repeating, “Oh my God,” he said, but did not pull over. Ahmad said he reached into her window to grab the wheel. But she drove off, dragging him through the street as he held on, according to Ahmad’s partner, Angelina Harvey Mendez, who was also at the scene.
“I just don’t understand,” Ahmad, who graduated from Berkeley High School in 2018, told Berkeleyside on Monday. “Why wouldn’t you get out and check on the individual? She flew right in front of you. Why would you hit the gas? That makes no sense.”
The driver, a 24-year-old woman from Oakland whose name has not been released by police, drove east for seven blocks, parked behind Whole Foods and then called authorities to identify herself and report the crash, according to BPD and radio traffic reviewed by Berkeleyside.
Police made no arrest that night but said the driver has cooperated with the investigation, which is ongoing.
“This doesn’t rule out that there won’t be some charge in the future,” said Officer Byron White, Berkeley police spokesperson. “The department does take it seriously. We called in our highest trained people to deal with it.”
But Ahmad’s family members — who are Black — said they do not understand many of the decisions police made after the crash and are concerned race may have played a role in their approach to the investigation. Mark Webb, the family’s attorney, said he plans to file paperwork Tuesday alerting the city of Berkeley to pending legal action.
“They want to understand why the Berkeley police treated them this way,” Webb said Monday of the family. “What evidence did they rely on to let the woman go?”
Webb initially said he believed the driver, a white woman, was ultimately allowed to drive away from her detention in her own car. BPD told Berkeleyside, just after publication, that the car was impounded the night of the crash and that the driver did undergo a field sobriety test.
Police said soon after the crash that they did not believe drugs or alcohol were factors in the collision, but Webb and Ahmad’s relatives said they don’t understand how that determination was made so quickly.
Relatives said they also don’t understand why police do not consider this a hit-and-run crash, given that the driver fled the area and caused more harm as she left.
White said the driver left the area because “there was a crowd gathering,” adding, “She drove to a place where she felt she was safe and she called us.”
It is not uncommon after traffic collisions in Berkeley for drivers to be released without arrest initially, with charges to be filed later, but that hasn’t sat well with Ahmad’s family members, they said.
“I want justice, but I want everybody that’s involved to be held accountable too,” said Sam Austin, Latitia’s older brother. “What kind of message is the Berkeley Police Department sending?”
Austin said he has regularly read news accounts where police treat drivers who use their vehicles to harm other people with more severity. He said it felt like a double standard, and that he believes, if the races were reversed, that different choices would have been made.
Austin said his niece, Delvonnia Cooper, has been released from the hospital but continues to be in a lot of pain, both physical and mental.
“Both children witnessed their mother’s death in front of their eyes,” Austin said. “They are hurting right now.”
Family members met over the weekend at the site of the July 26 collision to hold a small vigil for Ahmad. They said they are planning a more public event for later this week.
Ahmad was a local caterer who was known to loved ones by her nickname “Fefe.” The mother of two had a big heart and was known for her bold personality. She was also known for her skill in the kitchen and her approach to seasoning.
“She had a genuine soul,” her son Sharif told Berkeleyside. “She was a powerful, spiritual individual.”
Sharif said his mother was a beautiful woman who had been dubbed “the Black Shirley Temple” by her grandfather because of her long, curly hair.
Ahmad was one of 12 siblings and grew up with them in North Oakland, ultimately graduating from Oakland Technical High School. She was born third and, as one of the eldest in the large family unit, often helped with her younger brothers and sisters while they were growing up.
Austin told Berkeleyside that Ahmad was the first of the 12 siblings to pass.
“We never thought this would happen,” he said. “This is really painful for our family to sustain a loss like this.”
Note: BPD told Berkeleyside, just after publication, that the car was in fact impounded the night of the crash and that the driver did undergo a field sobriety test. This information was added to the story.