Lolomanaia Soakai's family announced a lawsuit against the City of Oakland today alleging negligence by Oakland Police officers during a chase that led to his death. Credit: Pointer Buelna law firm

The family of Lolomanaia Soakai, a 27-year-old airline worker who was killed as a result of an East Oakland police pursuit, is suing the Oakland Police Department in federal court, they announced today at a press conference. 

Adanté Pointer, the Soakai family’s attorney, said they’re seeking financial damages and want to make the police take responsibility for their actions. 

“[These officers] decided to engage in an illicit and unlawful practice,” Pointer said. “At a time when there were families that were driving up and down the city streets, these police officers caved into their thirst for action and they engaged in a reckless car chase.”

Saokai and several of his family members were parked on International Boulevard on June 25 last year having dinner when 19-year-old Arnold Linaldi crashed his car into them. Linaldi was reportedly fleeing OPD officers in a high-speed chase.

Pointer alleged that the officers chased Linaldi without turning on their emergency lights, which would have automatically activated a dash camera that would have recorded the incident. This also would have prompted communication with a supervising officer who would have been tasked with either approving or canceling the pursuit.

The Oakland Police Department sent us an email saying they do not comment on pending litigation. The city attorney’s office said they have not had an opportunity to review the complaint and have no comment.

The Oakland police have strict policies for vehicle pursuits. They are generally only supposed to chase someone in a vehicle when a violent forcible crime such as a murder or a rape has happened, and when a suspect is armed. OPD policy says that emergency lights must be turned on during a pursuit to alert and safeguard pedestrians. And officers must gain authorization from a supervisor before chasing someone. The Soakai family alleges that none of these policies were followed during the June 25, 2022 chase.

“The decision to give chase, despite policy and without permission, caused this tragedy,” said Pointer. 

A family tragedy during what was supposed to be an evening of celebration

A police chase along International Boulevard on June 25, 2022, led to a collision that killed Lolo Soakai and caused serious injuries to his mother, Lavina, seen here receiving medical attention. Credit: Pointer Buelna law firm

Soakai and four family members and friends were on their way home after attending a friend’s college graduation on June 25 last year when they stopped at a taco truck at International Boulevard and 55th Avenue. Around the same time they were ordering food, Linaldi was allegedly participating in an illegal sideshow more than ten blocks away. Two police officers reportedly chased Linaldi but the teen lost control of his vehicle and smashed into parked cars and motorcycles that included Soakai’s family. Lolo was standing on the sidewalk and was crushed under one of the cars.

Lolo’s mother Lavina Soakai was waiting for her son in their car and was also hit, as were his cousin Ina Lavalu and her husband Daniel Fifita, who were in their own car parked behind them. Lolo’s friend Samieuela Finau, who was on his motorcycle, was also side-swiped. All survived but suffered serious injuries, with Lavina breaking her back and suffering the tragedy of seeing her son pass away next to her. 

“Her last vision of her son is his death. Now she is alone,” Treva Stewart, another attorney for the family said at the press conference today. 

Lavina Soakai was present at the press conference but did not speak. She cried throughout and often looked at a photo of herself with her son. 

After the crash, the officers were alleged to have sped away from the scene, only returning once they heard other sirens of first responders who were approaching to give first aid. The officers are suspected of having failed to call 911 or to attend to the collisions themselves as first responders. Then, when they did arrive on the scene, they were alleged to be overheard on police radios and by witnesses saying they wished the driver they had chased had died.

Linaldi suffered serious injuries but survived. He is currently out on bail after being charged with vehicular manslaughter. 

“As a result of the officers’ refusal to provide or summon emergency medical services—which their Department and officer training require—Plaintiffs’ injuries worsened and [Soakai] lost his life without immediate medical intervention. Indeed, the Oakland officers’ deliberate delay of medical treatment cost [Soakai] his life,” the lawsuit states.

The officers have yet to be publicly identified.

Pointer said it’s his understanding that the two officers are still employed by the city. Asked whether he held embattled Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong responsible for his officers’ actions, the lawyer said he didn’t know what information Armstrong had at the time of the incident. Armstrong stripped the officers of their badges and guns and placed them on paid administrative leave four days after the collision. 

“Before the buck gets to him, there are a lot of supervisors and officers who are compelled by the law to not engage in this type of conduct,” Pointer said. 

Attorneys allege that “ghost chases” are a bigger problem at OPD

The lawsuit claims that the “ghost chase,” a pursuit that happens but isn’t recorded in official records, is a larger problem within the Oakland Police Department. Since new stricter chase policies were adopted in 2014, Pointer alleged that many ghost chases have occurred and that police supervisors and officials have failed to “take action to discipline, quell or abolish the unconstitutional and dangerous practice.” 

Lolo’s cousin Ian Finau said at today’s press conference that as a former Oakland resident, he has seen ghost chases and believes they are common. The family said they want to change what they perceive as a “broken system” that allows police officers to harm residents without taking responsibility. 

“We as a community need to see the change,” said Finau. 

Ina Lavalu said that six months after their involvement with the collision, they are all still traumatized. 

“Everything such as sirens, OPD cars, screeching, all of that, it takes a big toll on me because all of it brings me back to the night it all happened,” she said. 

Studies around police pursuits have found that they frequently cause injuries to bystanders, police, and suspects. 

USA Today found in 2015 that more than 5,000 people have died from police chases in the last few decades and that most were low-income people of color. The vast majority of pursuits in the U.S. involve minor driving infractions.

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.