A man in his 70s died over the weekend at Alta Bates Hospital the morning after being detained by police — then released — for drinking in a restaurant’s outdoor dining area and refusing to leave. The death has sparked internal and external questions about whether it might have been avoided.
The Berkeley Police Department has launched an internal review of policies that may have contributed to the man’s release from custody Saturday night, less than three hours after he was detained in the outside seating area for Saul’s Restaurant & Delicatessen at 1475 Shattuck Ave. (near Vine Street). The man, who was not a patron, was drinking a bottle of wine and refused to leave, BPD said.
On Wednesday night, the city’s Police Accountability Board indicated plans to launch its own independent investigation into the man’s death. A dozen or so members of the public addressed the board at the beginning of the meeting to urge a full review.
“If this is acceptable police policy, then this definitely needs to be changed,” Kitt Saginor told the board.
Details about the incident remain limited due to the ongoing investigation, BPD said Thursday. But the department did provide a statement about what happened. Police also shared similar information during Wednesday night’s Police Accountability Board meeting.
After publication, Saul’s also provided information to Berkeleyside about what took place; this story has now been updated to include it.
Saul’s owner Peter Levitt said the man had come into the restaurant Jan. 7, the prior night. He was unmasked and had a bottle of alcohol. The man walked past staff members who are tasked with checking vaccination status, then locked himself in the bathroom for nearly an hour. At that point, Saul’s had closed for the day and staff knocked on the door to ask the man to leave, which he did, Levitt said.
On Saturday, shortly before 8:40 p.m., the man — who appeared to be inebriated — sat down at a Saul’s table outside, Levitt said. He was “drinking from a bottle and hunched over.”
“The manager on duty asked him to move on and he asked that we ‘just call the police,'” said Levitt. “We called the non-emergency number for service.”
Police arrived and spoke to the man for approximately 10 minutes, Levitt said: “Then two officers gently and slowly assisted him towards their patrol car. One officer returned with his bottle to fill it with water from the restaurant. The man sat on the curb next to the laundromat for another 10 minutes or so with the officers attending.”
According to BPD, “officers considered options other than incarceration.” But “they ultimately transported the man so that he could stay in a Berkeley Jail sobering cell, which allows individuals to stay a few hours” and later be released without charges.
When the man got to jail, however, authorities realized he was ineligible for entry due to what appeared to be a potentially contagious skin condition. Two or so hours later, the man was released from custody without any charges around 11 p.m.
Sunday morning, just after 5:20, officers found the man outside the back of the police station “lying near a curb on Addison Street near McKinley Street. They called the Berkeley Fire Department to check on his welfare,” BPD said.
When firefighters arrived, the man was unresponsive, BFD told Berkeleyside. He was cold to the touch but moaning, and he smelled of alcohol. Firefighters took the man to Alta Bates for treatment.
Later that day, BPD said, the Alameda County coroner’s office notified BPD that the man had died at Alta Bates.
According to the coroner’s office, the man’s body is now pending examination by pathologists. As of Thursday, that exam “has not been done yet,” the coroner’s office told Berkeleyside.
The man’s name has not been released pending family notification, the coroner’s office also said.
“This outcome is awful for all of us and for our community and no doubt for the officers involved,” Levitt told Berkeleyside.
On Wednesday night, Capt. Joe Okies, who oversees BPD patrol operations, told the Police Accountability Board that the autopsy is expected to happen within 1-2 weeks.
Okies said BPD will now review any policies related to its handling of the detention, including General Order I-15, regarding procedures related to intoxicated persons, and policy 900, related to the temporary custody of adults.
Okies told the board BPD would determine whether existing policies are adequate and also whether they were followed by those involved in Saturday night’s detention.
BPD said it would also look into “what other community resources may be helpful in similar situations.”
Members of the public told the board the man should not have been released into the cold night if he was unable to care for himself. One woman called for an independent autopsy to ensure objectivity. Others asked why BPD did not call BFD for a medical response Saturday night.
Board member Kitty Calavita asked Okies whether this appeared to be a situation where a sobering center or alternative crisis response might have been preferable to police involvement.
“This seems like a prime example of the need for that,” she said. “Would you agree?”
“I think it’s too early to tell if that’s the case or not,” Okies said. “We need to evaluate the circumstances, get all the facts of what happened — through interviews and review of body cameras and review of policy — before drawing conclusions about the right steps to move forward.”
Note: On Friday, Jan. 14, Berkeleyside added information from Saul’s to this story. According to Saul’s, the man was in their outdoor dining area, not a public parklet, when police were called. This story has been updated to remove the parklet references and include additional details from Saul’s.
Featured photo: Kaia Diringer