Mourners somberly gathered in front of the Chapala Market on International Boulevard on the evening of June 27 to remember Lolomanaia Soakai and protest what they view as another preventable death in Oakland caused by a collision.
With candles spelling out “Lolo” flickering, Tongan flags flying, and pained faces everywhere, the Pacific Islander community tried to make sense of the loss. They were joined by the Traffic Violence Rapid Response team, a new Oakland community group advocating for safer streets for pedestrians and bicyclists. They shouted and sang about the unfairness of the situation to anyone who walked by.
Then, an hour into the protest, an Oakland police officer walked over and asked what the event was and if they could help.
“You don’t belong here,” one member of the Tongan community shouted at the officer.
“You are the reason we are here,” one of Lolo’s cousins said.
“It’s just crazy how y’all people can’t even do their job,” another cousin interjected. “And you don’t give a fuck.”
The exchange spoke volumes about the tension that exists between law enforcement and many community members in Oakland. The protesters felt the police could not protect them, and in fact, had contributed to the death of their loved one, and injuries to others. How else, they asked, could a “church boy” like Soakai have died when stopping to eat a burrito with his mother?
Soakai, a 27-year-old Hayward resident, was killed on June 25 when 19-year-old Arnold Linaldi lost control of his car and crashed onto the sidewalk. It has since been alleged that two Oakland police officers were chasing Linaldi, that the pursuit was unauthorized and in violation of OPD’s strict policies governing vehicle chases, and that the officers left the crash scene, failed to report it, did not call for medical help, and were recorded saying they wished the driver had died. Allegedly, the officers also pretended they’d been unaware of the collision until they returned to the scene later on.
Last week, Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong said the incident is being investigated. In the meantime, the two officers have been “relieved of their police powers,” which according to Armstrong means their badges and guns have been taken and their leave from the department pending the investigation will be longer than the normal 72 hours.
For many, Soakai’s death is an example of how the city’s systemic problems—from decades-old streets that are poorly designed and in crumbling condition to hazardous driving—have resulted in hundreds of innocent people suffering from major injuries or ending up dead. The city has been pouring money into fixing street designs but has a massive backlog of work.
But one other area the city has been able to take action on is police pursuits. Pursuits are extremely risky and often result in injuries and death to the suspects being chased, police officers, and bystanders. Oakland’s policies are relatively strict compared to other cities. Officers aren’t supposed to chase suspects except in certain circumstances. But Soakai’s family and traffic safety advocates question why some officers appear to have violated these rules and whether more needs to be done to ensure OPD isn’t making the streets less safe.
A deadly crash and its aftermath
On June 25, Soakai was enjoying a night out with a group of friends and family after attending the college graduation of a church member. They were looking for a place to eat before heading home to Hayward and ended up at the Tacos Los Amigos truck at 54th Avenue and International.
Around 1 a.m., Lolo’s cousin Ina Lavalu arrived in a separate car with her husband. She was in the car’s passenger side, legs up on the dashboard, her chair reclined while waiting for food. Lolo picked up his own burrito from the truck and walked over to Ina and her husband’s car to say bye to them. His mom was waiting in his car in front of them.
As they finished their conversation, Lolo smiled and said to Lavalu: “Bye, y’all. Get home safe.”
At that moment, a screeching sound pierced the night, Lavalu said. Linaldi, who police allege had been at a sideshow nearby, lost control of his car and smashed into the side of Ina’s car and hit several parked motorcycles and their owners, members of the TOKO Harley Ridaz’ bikers club. The inertia sent the cars and motorcycles onto the sidewalk, crushing Lolo under them.
Lavalu said she blacked out, came to, and managed to climb out of her car through airbags, collapsing on the sidewalk. The next thing she knew, she was in the hospital. Her husband survived the collision but had severe kidney injuries. Doctors told her that if she had not put down her legs moments before the crash, she’d have been dead or paralyzed.
“It’s the worst experience of my life,” she said quietly at last week’s protest. “It’s been very traumatic. I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. I toss and turn. Nothing’s the same anymore.”
Lavalu and her husband said they are filled with anger and grief. As they heal, their extended family is taking care of their children.
“I don’t even know when’s the next time I could drive. It affects everything we do in life. We can’t see our kids cuz we gotta get ourselves together,” she said.
According to Lolo’s brother Henry Soakai, their mother’s back and ribs were fractured during the crash. She was released from the hospital last Thursday. Henry said his mother is traumatized about losing her oldest son but also because the last time she saw him, while he was in bad shape, he was still moving his head on the sidewalk. She thought he was going to make it.
“But it took a long time for the ambulance to get to them,” Henry told The Oaklandside.
Two unidentified OPD officers are accused not only of improperly chasing Linaldi, but also of leaving the scene of the collision, a decision that, if true, may have cost victims precious minutes. According to Lolo’s brother Henry and some of the witnesses at the scene, it took about 20 minutes from the time of the collision to when the first responders showed up.
“It was the cops who should have been the first responders,” Henry told us.
Henry said that the family of seven used to live in East Oakland until the mid-2000s. The children attended Acorn Woodland and Parker Elementary schools. Lolo attended Castlemont High School for one year before their parents decided the streets were too dangerous and moved the family to Texas.
“Our parents didn’t want us to live around the violence in Oakland,” he said.
But about three years ago, Lolo returned to the Bay Area when he got a promotion at American Airlines. He brought his mother back, taking care of her after their father died. Since the crash, she has been waking up every two hours in the night, in physical pain and feeling immense grief.
Henry and Lolo’s cousin Lavinia-Sidney Tiueti told The Oaklandside that it’s important that something changes after this tragedy.
“A mistake was made and an innocent person died,” Tiueti said. “How can we learn from this tragedy?”
Police pursuits have presented a danger to Oakland residents for years
When asked about when and how officers are allowed to chase fleeing vehicles the Oakland Police Department provided The Oaklandside with a link to its latest pursuit policy, adopted in 2014. The policy and OPD’s website state that officers are only allowed to chase people who are fleeing in vehicles if they are suspected of having committed a “violent forcible crime” such as a rape, assault, murder, or robbery, or they’re believed to have a gun. For each event, individual officers need to weigh “the risks to the safety of officers, motorists, bystanders, and the public versus the benefit to public safety,” the policy explains.
Prior to 2014, OPD’s policy was more lenient, allowing officers to initiate a chase for misdemeanor and citable offenses but requiring that officers break off the pursuit if they couldn’t subsequently establish that the persons in the vehicle might have been involved in a felony crime.
Prior to 2011, OPD’s policy was even less restrictive, allowing officers to give chase more often. A review of OPD pursuits by the department’s Office of the Inspector General found that chases from this era were “often problematic” in that officers frequently chased people for minor reasons, putting bystanders at great risk, and that there was “an apparent reluctance on the part of police officers to terminate chases even when the conditions are extremely hazardous.” The report found that over a 19-month period in 2010 and 2011, 21 bystanders were injured due to OPD pursuits and that 128 chases resulted in some form of property damage. “There is evidence of a culture that routinely minimizes the threat these pursuits present and places a higher priority on catching the offender, even when the offense is not that serious,” the inspector general concluded.
More recent data shows that OPD’s stricter policies have resulted in fewer chases, but there continue to be collisions. In the last four and half years, OPD officers have engaged in 397 pursuits, with 50 of them ending when the pursued vehicle collided with another vehicle or crashed into a building, pole, or some other object. Six times, police also crashed their vehicles. The department has a site that tracks collisions in which officers are involved but it has not populated it with any data. Out of the nearly 400 pursuits in the available public data, all appear to have been in conformance with OPD’s policies and the law.
But it is unclear if the pursuit data presented to the public by OPD is accurate. Besides the pursuit that led to the collision that killed Soakai, there have been other questionable chases. It is not known how many of those times the pursuits led to collisions that hit and severely injured or killed pedestrians or bicyclists.
Police chases that kill innocent bystanders used to be more frequent in Oakland. According to crowdsourced data from FatalEncounters.org, a nonprofit advocacy organization run by journalist D. Brian Burghart, there have been at least 15 deadly collisions in Oakland in the last 20 years as a result of police chases that have been reported. But there are likely more, as police self-report these events and tend to undercount them, according to policing experts.
Independent journalist Omar Yassin published an even more comprehensive report about OPD officers crashing their vehicles, during and not during pursuits. According to Yassin, between 2016 and mid-2019 there were around 400 crashes involving officers. Police were found to be at fault in 263 of these incidents.
Some particular cases from the past twelve years stand out. And OPD isn’t the only law enforcement agency that has caused fatal collisions in Oakland.
In 2010, a 19-year-old speeding on the highway was chased into downtown Oakland by California Highway Patrol officers and crashed into a car driven by 32-year-old Oakland resident Mark Aragon, who died. Aragon was on his way to work at the Oakland airport. In 2014, Oakland resident Bein Cam Tran, 58, was killed while walking near Lake Merritt when he was hit by an OPD SUV in the middle of a chase. That collision led Tran’s family to sue the city for wrongful death and personal injury, eventually settling for $2.75 million. In 2017, Chana Trahan was T-boned at an intersection by one of the cops who had taken part in the Celeste Guap sex-trafficking scandal. Trahan reportedly experienced serious head injuries.
Oakland has paid a lot of money to victims and their families due to traffic collisions. One of the biggest settlements resulted from a 2017 crash in which Oakland Police Officer Danny Sy Chor ran a red light downtown and hit motorcyclist Elliott Van Fleet downtown. Van Fleet lost his right leg because of the collision and suffered other severe injuries. The city paid $12 million to compensate Van Fleet for a portion of his medical bills and the trauma he experienced.
Reached at his home near Joshua Tree this week, Van Fleet said he is not surprised police chases continue to lead to violent injuries. After all, he said, the cop that hit him is still employed by the department, earning nearly $300,000 in 2021, according to Transparent California.
“There doesn’t seem to be accountability for any of it. [The cop] lied in the deposition, saying he did not run the red light,” Van Fleet said. “The monetary settlement allows me to live but I am in pain still. And that will never change.”
Policing experts say pursuits are not necessary. But some officers continue to give chase
University of South Carolina Professor Geoffrey Alpert, a criminologist who has spent decades studying risky police tactics, said that chasing is no longer warranted for nonviolent offenses because most suspects end up getting caught later on anyway. Police are better off letting a person escape if they’re suspected of committing a low-level offense, and finding them later and arresting them when it’s less risky to do so.
Pursuits also bring about greater danger because suspects tend to react by driving faster. For example, in Lake County, Florida in 2019, police pursued a 23-year-old man after he ran a red light and was corralled into a dead-end street. Within minutes, the chase turned into a 130-mph race that led to the cop losing control and smashing into a car driven by a 19-year-old student named Carlos Sanchez-Santiago, killing the teen instantly.
Dr. Harold Hutson, who co-published a study 15 years ago looking into the effects of police chases in California, told The Oaklandside that police departments should have learned their lesson a long time ago. Growing up in the East Bay, Hutson knows that International Boulevard is usually far too crowded, even at night, to have any sort of chase that wouldn’t endanger bystanders.
“Cops have to think about whether chasing someone is worth the risk of injuring innocent civilians,” Hutson said.
Another factor police need to account for is that adolescents and younger people—like the 19-year-old Linardi—are impulsive. “They’re probably not going to stop,” Hutson said, adding that in medical terms, teens don’t have fully developed brains to help them consider a chase situation thoughtfully and calmly.
How police chases lead to violent ends has been widely documented. An investigation by USA Today, using the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, found that between 1980 and 2015 more than 5,000 bystanders were killed in the U.S. from collisions due to police chases. This data included people driving on the road and pedestrians like Soakai. More than 11,000 people, including innocent passengers, died because of these chases. And Black and brown people tend to lose their lives more often in these incidents.
According to Alpert, police chases are actually the most dangerous form of police misconduct that leads to death, even more than head locks, tasing, and other uses of force.
When police adhere to strict policies that prohibit most kinds of chases, lives are saved. In a major study, Alpert found that a police agency in Florida with a restrictive pursuit policy lowered the number of chases by 82% within a year. In Nebraska, a police agency with looser policies saw pursuits increase by 600%.
In the last few years, most big-city police departments like Detroit and New York City have adopted restrictive pursuit policies to reduce the number of collisions. People like Alpert have been pressuring federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI, and state and local police to consider their research and work to ensure more departments reduce chases.
Yet, police in many parts of the nation are still chasing people who only commit misdemeanors, and injuries and deaths from chases continue to grow.
Between 2014 and 2017, 400 people a year died from police chases, the highest number in a four-year time period in 40 years. And even when cops follow protocol and chase after a violent suspect, they can still exacerbate a tragedy. For example, in 2009 after two suspected gang members shot a person in Berkeley, the chase by Berkeley police into North Oakland led to the suspected shooters crashing into another car, killing the driver of the car, and killing a pedestrian.
University of North Carolina criminal justice professor Frank Baumgartner told The Oaklandside that in one way, pursuits are not unlike routine traffic stops for drugs: they’re another policing task from a bygone era that has “a very high social cost.”
“Looking for drugs [is] wasteful and alienating to a large number of people,” he said. “[Similarly], many agencies have policies against pursuits, but individual officers of course make snap judgments about what to do. There are way too many tragedies.”
State law gives police immunity from lawsuits caused by collisions
Esther Seoanes and Candy Priano think that state law needs to be changed to dissuade cops from chasing suspects.
Seoanes is a travel nurse practitioner currently at the University of California San Francisco and the executive director of Pursuit Safety, a nonprofit advocating to end nonviolent police pursuits. She lost her husband 10 years ago in Texas due to a collision from a chase. Priano founded Pursuit Safety after she lost her 15-year-old daughter to a collision 20 years ago.
“There is no accountability to innocent victims and the families left behind,” said Priano.
California law, Seoanes explained, gives police officers immunity from wrongful death lawsuits when they engage in pursuit policies.
Many police forces have adopted and implemented their own pursuit policy, but cities often do little to require police to follow that policy, lawyer Tim Rumberger told The Oaklandside. The Berkeley resident sued the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department in 2019 for chasing his clients for miles throughout Oakland and other cities, even though they were only two teen girls who allegedly stole milk from a Safeway in Castro Valley.
Rumberger said state law provides individual officers immunity from liability, meaning someone who is injured as a result of a police chase or loses a loved one who is killed can’t sue the police officer, even if they know they were at fault. “A public employee is not liable for civil damages on account of personal injury to, or death of, any person… when in the immediate pursuit of an actual or suspected violator of the law,” the law states.
That leaves people with one option if they want to sue for damages: suing an agency, such as the OPD. According to state law, “a public entity is liable for death or injury to a person” if it was caused by a “negligent or wrongful act” of its employees when using their vehicle.
But another part of the law allows police departments to argue that even though individual officers are expected to read and understand their agency’s pursuit policy and certify they’ve read it and understood it, the agencies aren’t necessarily liable if officers don’t. California’s vehicle code states that “the failure of an individual officer to sign a certification shall not be used to impose liability on an individual officer or a public entity.” This “liability escape clause” was upheld by California’s Supreme Court four years ago, giving police a big win.
Rumberger said lobbyists from police unions pressured state legislators in the early 2010s to amend the law’s original language to avoid requiring individual officers to follow their department’s pursuit policies. This helped convince police unions and cities to back off politically, he said. If one officer out of a thousand in an agency did not read the policy correctly or failed to sign it, police departments argued, it would be unfair to hold the whole department liable.
Priano and Seoanes have been working in recent years to convince more police agencies to avoid vehicle pursuits and instead use warrants to arrest someone later on.
According to Pursuit Safety’s leaders, allowing each police department (there are hundreds in California) to use different pursuit policies also leads to bad decision-making. There should instead be one clear rule for all police in the state.
It’s not just bystanders and suspects who are harmed. Police chases also tend to hurt police officers. In the U.S., Seoanes noted, an officer is killed every 6 to 8 weeks in a vehicle wreck. In 2018, 22-year-old Oakland Police Officer Jordan Wingate was severely injured in a police chase and had to be extricated from his car.
In addition to better policies, Seoanes believes that technology could help reduce collisions resulting from pursuits. GPS tracking devices and technologies that stop suspects’ car engines are increasingly deployed by many agencies.
“There’s no reason to chase unless somebody’s life is in danger,” Seoanes said. “They need to change how they look at the whole practice of policing.”
Just a good kid taking care of his mother
At last week’s protest, friends and family remembered Soakai as they knew him: a loving member of a tight-knit Pacific Islander community.
“He didn’t deserve to go out the way he did. He was a super nice guy,” his sister Lesieli said. “He was always looking out for everybody, always talking to people, making sure that everybody’s good.”
After Soakai lost his airline job early in the pandemic his family said he found work as a helper in senior homes. Soakai had plans to continue his studies so he could work with troubled teens as a social worker or a counselor, using his passion for music to connect with them. He studied music at Trinity High School in Euless, Texas, often staying after class to improve, and at one time even trying his voice at opera.
His brother Henry said he often sang for others.
“He loved to sing. Dad loved it when he sang, it put a smile on his face. Lolo sang for weddings and he also loved to listen to reggae and church-type music,” Henry said.
Family members thought it was sad but appropriate that when he was hit, Soakai was surrounded by Tongan people. The TOKO Harley Rydaz, some of whom were also injured in the crash, were the first to provide aid.
“Even though some of the boys was hurt they still had the energy and courage to try and help save everyone that was injured before their own injuries and I have much respect for my brothers,” wrote TOKO’s Ian Finau in a Facebook post. Within an hour, those on the scene called on more of the Rydaz in the area, many of whom rode their bikes in the middle of the night, from San Jose and other areas, to see what they could do. But by then it was too late.
Lesieli believes the loss of her brother has to mean something, both for her Tongan community and for Oakland at large. In the same way that Lolo looked out for other people, she said, they now have to look out for his legacy and make it mean something.
“It just feels like this is a time for us to be sad, but we gotta come and fight for the system to be corrected,” she said. “It’s wrong that we’re supposed to be resting in peace and in emotion and to be physically sad and just cry with our family. But we can’t even do that because people can’t get the system right.”