EXCLUSIVE: Alameda police chief responds after black man handcuffed for 'dancing in the street'

Stephanie Sierra Image
Friday, June 12, 2020
EXCLUSIVE: Chief responds after black man handcuffed for 'dancing in the street'
In an exclusive interview with the ABC7 News' I-Team the Alameda police chief opens up about changes are being made after officers handcuffed and pinned a black man to the ground after reports he was "dancing in the street."

ALAMEDA, Calif. (KGO) -- The ABC7 I-Team is learning new details about two of the Alameda police officers who handcuffed and pinned a black man to the ground after reports he was "dancing in the street."

In an exclusive interview, I-Team reporter Stephanie Sierra spoke with Alameda Police Chief Paul Rolleri about what happened.

"I'm concerned," said Chief Rolleri. "I think that the incident that happened in Alameda has become a big part of the national conversation about racism and policing in America."

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The first two officers who responded to the scene were hired by the Alameda Police Department in November of 2019. Both were still in training until March and April of this year.

Body camera footage released last week shows officers the moments when officers walk up to 44-year-old Mali Watkins.

Officer: "You're dancing in the street."

Mali: "So what? I'm dancing in the street."

Officer: "Yes. Hold on woman. You're not free to go."

ABC7's Stephanie Sierra asked the Chief since when is dancing in the street a crime?

"I'm unaware of a specific section in any penal code or any California code that bans dancing in the street," Chief Rolleri said. "Being a pedestrian in the street is an infraction, there's nothing about dancing."

Yet, Watkins was pinned to the ground and handcuffed by at least five Alameda police officers for close to an hour. The initial call alluded Watkins may be intoxicated or suffered from mental illness.

RELATED: Alameda city official has 'shaken confidence' in police department after video of officers handcuffing black man for 'dancing in the street'

Chief Rolleri couldn't comment on whether any of the officers will face any disciplinary action as the outside investigation will determine that. The I-Team has requested to see if the remaining three officers seen cuffing Watkins have a history of prior complaints.

Stephanie Sierra: "What needs to change within your department to make sure incidents like that don't happen again?"

"There is no Chief, not me, not anybody, who can ever say something will never happen again it's just not possible," Rolleri said.

According to the Chief, the number of officers on patrol will be reduced and shifted to focus on criminal investigations.

"Effective tomorrow morning, the Alameda Police Department is completely restructuring the way that we deploy our resources and provide services in the city of Alameda," he said. "For example the call on Mr. Watkins, we will no longer be responding to calls like that."

Chief Rolleri said the department's service models will change.

"We will limit the number of interactions with the community based on hunches, suspicions, and anonymous phone calls," he said. "We're done doing that."

This doesn't include any reports of criminal activity.

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"If you're calling us to report a crime, a sexual assault, a robbery, a suspected DUI...we will respond," he said. "What we're not going to do is respond to mental health evaluation calls."

This was partially in response to what happened to Mr. Watkins -- who was first reported to police under suspicion of mental illness or intoxication.

Chief Rolleri also commented on criticism from Vice Mayor John Knox White.

On Monday, Knox White told the I-Team he received conflicting reports from police about what really happened to Mali Watkins. But today, Chief Rolleri said he learned of the incident via a post on Reddit and clarified he didn't see the cell phone video until one week later.

"Initially, I did not know it was a use of force incident," he said. "When we understood what happened, we responded immediately."