Fix the BART police force – or disband it

Pub date July 13, 2010
SectionBruce Blog

18 months after a BART cop shot Oscar Grant, the transit agency still doesn’t have effective police oversight

EDITORIAL Who murdered Oscar Grant? Part of the equation is the years of neglect of the BART Police. — Assembly Member Tom Ammiano

We’re angry, too.

Angry that a police officer who shot and killed an unarmed man could wind up with little or no prison time. Angry that the news media whipped up such a fervor over the potential for a riot in Oakland that it almost guaranteed someone would show up and break a few windows. Angry that the jury who decided this case was 400 miles away and included no African Americans.

But mostly we’re angry that 18 months after a BART cop shot Oscar Grant, the transit agency still doesn’t have effective police oversight. And until the BART board recognizes that it still has 200 poorly trained, poorly supervised,* armed officers on the streets — and that this shooting wasn’t an anomaly, it was simply the latest in a series of criminal acts by BART police officers that led to the deaths of innocent people — and until the BART Board starts treating this like the emergency that it is, the problems are going to continue.

There are elements of this case that are historic — and very positive. This is the first time we can remember that a police officer in California has faced murder charges for an on-duty shooting. That alone sends a powerful message — and the Alameda County District Attorney deserves immense credit for taking the case to trial. And let’s not forget: Johannes Mehserle was, in fact, convicted. With the additional penalties for using a handgun, he could wind up with a sentence of more than 10 years.

Much of that is now in the hands of Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert Perry, who will sentence Mehserle later this summer. The judge in an involuntary manslaughter case has considerable discretion; he could, conceivably, sentence Mehserle to probation, and the killer of an unarmed man could walk away with no jail time at all. Perry could sentence him to five years (of which the former officer would probably serve no more than three). He could also go as high as 14 years, which seems more reasonable.

Most of the protesters in Oakland were peaceful; most recognized that the verdict was mixed, that at least Mehserle was convicted, and that there’s still a chance justice will be done. It’s hard to imagine that the patience of the community will last long in the wake of an unacceptably short sentence.

But even if Perry issues a sentence that reflects the crime, there’s still the problem of the BART Police. This isn’t the first time a BART cop has killed an unarmed person; twice before, the subway system’s finest have committed crimes just as heinous as the one that put Johannes Mehserle in the dock. The difference is that the previous shootings — which we covered in depth and the mainstream media ignored — were never caught on video. BART never took either killing seriously, never changed police oversight procedures — and shouldn’t be surprised that nothing changed.

Now the agency, with much reluctance and gnashing of teeth, has created a modest civilian oversight program. But it’s not enough — and the reason is simple: The BART directors don’t want to spend the time it takes to monitor and control an armed police force. They’ve always happily delegated that job to someone else — a general manager, an assistant general manager, a police chief — and never done the job they were elected to do.

Now time’s up. The BART directors need to take direct control of the police, including holding hearings on disciplinary action and quickly acting on complaints against problem officers. Or they need to recognize that they can’t run a police force, disband the BART police, and let a professional law enforcement agency from one or more of the BART counties take over.