The BART Board is clueless


EDITORIAL The senseless and horrifying murder of four Oakland police officers March 21 has cast a pall over law enforcement agencies all over the Bay Area. It’s renewed calls for a federal ban on assault weapons, which is long overdue. (It’s also reminded us why a daily newspaper can be so valuable — Chronicle coverage of the incident, with numerous reporters quickly responding, is the kind of journalism that won’t happen if the city’s only major daily dies.)

Unfortunately, it’s also taken the focus away from other police issues, and while we mourn the four deaths of veteran officers who were killed trying to do their jobs, we can’t stop trying to solve the problems of cops who lack training, supervision, and oversight.

In that context, there is no other way to say this: the BART Board of Directors is as clueless as any governmental organization we’ve seen since the administration of George W. Bush declared victory in Iraq.

In the past 17 years, BART police officers have improperly shot and killed three people. There have been hundreds of complaints of unnecessary use of force. Most recently, a BART cop shot a young man point blank, and video recordings of the incident have created widespread anger and unrest.

Yet there is still nothing resembling a civilian oversight agency for that 200-member force — and the BART Board members are once again asking the public to trust them to take care of the situation.

Assembly Member Tom Ammiano and state Sen. Leland Yee are sponsoring state legislation that would force the BART Board to establish a San Francisco-style office of citizen complaints to handle all civilian complaints about BART police officer conduct. There are ways Assembly Bill 312 can be improved, and Ammiano, who is guiding the measure through its first legislative hearings, is open to productive suggestions. But when the BART Board sent a delegation to meet with Ammiano, the transit directors had only one basic message: they said AB 312 was "too prescriptive" — that is, it sought to set clear, strong rules for what BART has to do. BART would rather that the Legislature make some broad suggestions but let the folks who run the district shape the final outcome.

That’s simply unacceptable. BART has had plenty of time to address this problem, and plenty of notice that something is terribly wrong. In 1992 a BART cop shot and killed 20-year-old Jerold Hall near the Hayward Station, firing a shotgun into the back of Hall’s head as the unarmed young man was walking away. The shooting violated BART’s own police procedures and the rules that govern the use of deadly force at nearly every modern law enforcement agency in America — but the officer received no disciplinary action, not even a reprimand. In 2001 another BART cop shot and killed a mentally ill man who was lying naked on the ground. Again, BART declared the shooting perfectly okay. With that kind of lack of oversight, it’s not surprising that Oscar Grant was shot and killed early New Year’s Day — the BART police have never been held accountable for improper killings.

And the BART Board has never done a damn thing about it.

Now there is a special board committee that’s supposed to study police oversight. It has never held a single public meeting. Board member Tom Radulovich, who represents San Francisco and sits on the committee, told us there will be public meetings soon. But so far, all that the four-member panel has done is hold private discussions with local interest groups, with no public notice. We would argue that those meetings were a clear violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the Brown Act, which mandates that government agencies hold open meetings. But more than that, the closed meetings suggest that the BART Board has no understanding of the public anger and impatience with its 17-year record of failing to keep its police force in line.

Ammiano and Yee should refuse to compromise the basic premise of their bill. The state of California, which gave BART the right to create a police force, must now mandate exactly how that force will be managed. The BART Board had its chance and failed. We simply can’t trust that ineffective agency to get it right this time. * *